From the perspective of Qaher Harhash, it was a particularly unfortunate coincidence.
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It was late October, and the 17-year-old Muslim Palestinian fashion model was supposed to meet with a number of news teams from Israeli media outlet in his home neighborhood of Wadi Joz, in East Jerusalem. The appoint was set up after Harhash was photographed, together with Israeli model Noam Frost, for Rina Zin’s winter 2016 catalogue.
Harhash was excited about the meeting. He felt that he was closing in on his dream of becoming a famous face. But the reality of life in Israel stepped in, with the wave of unrest that began in September. In the end, the meeting was moved to the Tel Aviv offices of Roberto Ben Shoshan’s modeling agency, which represents him.
Harhash says he is afraid to go out in Jerusalem these days. “It was hard for me even to go through the central bus station to get to Tel Aviv for the meeting,” he recalls. He decided to dress like “just anybody” — in tight black jeans, a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket. The ensemble did not attract the attention of suspicious security guards.
Harhash was born in East Jerusalem and is the youngest of five, with three sisters and a brother. He was 7 when their garage-manager father and stay-at-home mother divorced. Their mother remarried, and he now lives with her, his stepfather and three siblings.
A student at the American International School in Beit Hanina, Harhash says he has wanted to be a model since he was a young boy.
“It began when I saw Tyson Beckford,” an American male model of Jamaican, Panamanian, Afro-Jamaican and Chinese descent who became an actor in the 1990s, “on the Fashion Channel,” Harhash says, adding that he was inspired by Beckford’s unique look.
“When I got older I started to learn about other famous models, but I didn’t want to be like them but rather something unique. And it was very empowering, this understanding that I don’t have to imitate somebody else.”
When Harhash declared in 2013 that he wanted to become a fashion model, there were some raised eyebrows in the family.
“Everyone dismissed it. People around me said, ‘He’s no model,’” he recalls. Harhash was undeterred. He tried out for a number of Israeli agencies but met with repeated rejections. He found Roberto Models Agency after almost everyone else in Israel had turned him down.
“I received responses like ‘Regretfully, you are not the face that suits us right now.’ I was very depressed,” he says. “On the one hand, it’s only natural. People didn’t believe in Kate Moss, and Tyra Banks was forced to go through six or seven agencies until someone saw something in her and believed in her.” But in his case, he says, the agencies refused him at the first stage. “Only Roberto gave me a chance,” he notes. “When I received an answer from him I went straight to an interview.”
“You can’t do anything but fall in love with him,” says Roberto Ben Shoshan about Harhash. After many years of treading water, Ben Shoshan experienced success that reverberated in the international press when Sofia Mechetner, a 14-year-old girl from Holon, was signed to a contract with Dior and even opened his fashion shows. This achievement put Ben Shoshan back in the game. But landing a contract at the pinnacle of high fashion in Paris for a starting model is a difficult mission no less hard than setting up a Palestinian model in Israel.
According to Ben Shoshan, the managers of a major Israeli brand examined Harhash, showed interest in him and even signed him to a photo contract, but they pulled out when the latest round of violence erupted. Harhash says his personal agent, Rotem Gur, who is also Mechetner’s personal agent, did not reveal the identity of the brand in order to save him the affront.
“I don’t judge anyone of course because we live in a very intense and tense reality,” Ben Shoshan says. “But I am convinced that most Israelis don’t know people like Qaher.”
Ben Shoshan says Harhash has the stats to succeed overseas. “First of all he has the right height, 1.86 meters. His look is very edgy, and he’s serene,” he says. “I knew he would be famous the moment I met him. He gave me a ton of hope.”
Harhash declares that he “wants to be a public image that will represent my generation, which believes that peace is possible.” But he immediately adds that he is not interested in becoming an icon of political struggle. He speaks of a traumatic incident that shows he is not speaking out of naivete. It happened after his parents divorced, during Ramadan.
“The whole family sat down for dinner, and at a certain moment we saw there were red laser lights on all of us,” he recalls. “My sisters reacted hysterically, and I didn’t understand what was happening. Soldiers suddenly broke in and arrested my uncle.” He adds that he would rather not go into details because his uncle, a former senior figure in Fatah, is still in jail.
“Until then I would wave to soldiers at checkpoints, and I didn’t really get the significance of the incident. My mother understood that she had to make sure I process the situation. She started registering me for peace programs like ‘Seeds of Peace.’ I was a member of the YMCA international choir, and I also saw a psychologist. I think that I would not be the same person if it weren’t for these programs. It could be that I had narrow horizons and wasn’t open toward the other side. It made me understand the situation better and to love everybody more.”
Harhash says that most of the responses his modeling pictures get on Facebook have been positive and supportive. “Of course there are some unpleasant reactions, like an Israeli who called me a terrorist, or someone from my side who said I was a collaborator,” he says. “But I don’t look at people that way. I don’t see them as political entities but rather human beings because that’s how I was raised.”
The novice model was flown to Milan at the beginning of last month to a series of meetings to get acquainted with Italian agencies.
“I was on the go from morning to night with meetings, and it was very fun because I got warm reactions. I felt I can be myself. I am a Palestinian and they had no problem with it,” he says. “We received inquiries from all sorts of agencies, and now we need to choose the agency most suitable for me, that works with types like me, not very muscular and with more of an orientation toward high fashion. What excited me the most from the meetings and talks with colleagues was the understanding that I have a place in the fashion world. I visited agencies in Milan representing models like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. Just the thought that I could be signed alongside these big names makes me feel I am fulfilling my dream.”
If there is one model he hopes to emulate, it’s Lucky Blue Smith, an American who is the same age as Harhash.
“He grew up so quickly and worked with designers like Calvin Klein and Tom Ford. He’s done everything,” he says. “And I want to be like him in that I would work a lot and with top-notch designers. Besides that, I am totally in love with Gigi Hadid. Somebody from my school is related to her, and she isn’t afraid to say she is Palestinian. She’s not ashamed of who she is and how she is. I would be very happy to work with her.”
Meanwhile, since returning from Milan he has had to catch up on schoolwork and make up some missed tests. “I know I can sit at home one day, and do homework or meet friends, and suddenly receive a call from Rotem and immediately go to the office,” he says. “You have to be ready for any work that comes your way. Let’s just say that I never put my cellphone away.”