Young, Arab and Proud

“It’s Time for Brands to Stand Against Anti-Palestinianism as much as against Anti-Semitism”

Qaher Harhash is a Palestinian international star model and an activist.

You may have heard his name recently, during the calls to boycott Zara. But he has been wearing his Palestinian identity as a badge of honor for a long time, despite the endless attempts to suppress any kind of Palestinian voice. Born 23 years ago in East Jerusalem, Qaher Harhash has managed, against all odds, to build a name for himself in an industry that is primarily dominated by non-Arabs, landing campaigns with the likes of Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier and Prada. I spoke to the Taurus model, because yes, horoscopes matter, about growing up in Palestine, working in fashion and more. To sum it up, Qaher Harhash is more than just a model, he’s earned the ultimate moniker of the region’s most powerful supermodels – oh, and an activist too!

© Marc Hibbert

How was it like, growing up in Palestine?
As a child growing up, you start to notice that the concept of movement is different. There’s not much you can do. There are no clubs and activities to be a part of, except from playing on the streets. However, my mother always found a way. And then comes the turning point, when you realize that there’s an occupation. As a child, I would wave to soldiers at checkpoints. I didn’t fully understand what was going on. I remember an incident during the second Intifada, where my sister and I were in the car as my mom left to pick up something from the store. The child lock was on. A soldier approached the car and threw a gas canister and we were left gasping for air. We were literally choking. Then there’s the apartheid wall. I was 7 when I realized that a wall separating us from family and friends was being built. I see now the stress it caused, but as a child, you measure and see time differently. I do not know how the adults coped, it’s a miracle by God. As an adult, they find a way to get to you, whether it be at checkpoints or other. It’s so unsettling because you can’t get to school or to your job. These things were happening, this was my reality. I can’t really find the words to describe it, because it’s unlike anything else in the world.

How did you get into modeling?
As a kid, my mum, being the typical Arab mother, would always videotape us. My siblings and I would also always reenact movies. I would be Simba in the Lion King, and my love for being in front of the camera probably started then. When I was 8, my sisters were watching Fashion TV, and I remember seeing Tyson Beckford walking down the runway and I thought it was interesting how someone walking could be like a movie. It was captivating, the audience were captivated and that stuck with me. I started watching more Fashion TV, following up with the careers of different male models – I was a nerd in that sense, i think. I realized that this is something I wanted to explore.

I got signed to an Israeli agency in 2015, when I was 16. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t, but as Palestinians, this was the only way. The racism against me was obvious, particularly when I say I’m Palestinian. They would hire someone else. I then moved to Berlin and messaged ICONIC, a modeling agency there, on Instagram. I said to myself that if I don’t hear back, then this industry is not for me. But I got called in, went to a meeting and made it clear that I had certain goals. They respected that, and I got signed the same day. You can say it was meant to be.

You recently shared the hate messages you received from the head of womenswear at Zara. People have since initiated a campaign to boycott the Company. I guess my question is: how are you?
You know, I started to receive her hate messages and comments at the end of May. I ignored them. But there’s so much one person is able to take in. I decided to share what happened to show how baseless her claims are. It also goes to show how hate and homophobia is rampant everywhere. We usually see brands standing against anti-Semitism, but it’s time we see brands standing also against anti-Palestinianism. As to how I’m feeling, there are a lot of ups and downs. Sometimes I’m sad and angry, but then I come across a funny video or see people from back home and I’m happy again. I find it amazing how throughout history and with all our suffering, we Palestinians stay strong. We will free Palestine one day. We have so much to tell and our suffering is so different. I’m also so proud of how far we’ve come as Arabs and Palestinians.

If you weren’t modeling right now, what career path would you have chosen and why?
I would go into civil engineering. I always loved it, but that’s plan B. Maybe one day, I can do both at the same time, why not…

Do you think being Palestinian hindered your career in anyway? Or do you think it served as an advantage?
I will only speak about my experience and my reality. Since moving to Berlin, many in the industry do not have a problem with me being Palestinian. It could be because the people I work with don’t know where the model comes from. I’ve done a lot of big campaigns, and I am able to live a great life because of it. I have an agency behind me that is making sure I am supported every step of the way. I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who enjoy doing their job, everyone i worked with was passionate about it. But again, that is my experience, it could be different for someone else.

What are the misconceptions you often hear about being Palestinian?
Whenever we talk about Palestine, there is always the question of “What about Israel?” But what about our rights? What about my rights as a Palestinian? Do you realize we live under an occupation? A system of governance that wants to drive us out of our home? The sad reality is that many Palestinians live in houses that aren’t licensed, because they can’t obtain a permit. We are constantly in fear that our house, at any moment, could be taken away from us. Who will protect us? No one.

© Tom Kleins

Have you faced any hurdles, being an Arab model in a field dominated by non-Arabs?
I’ve had some experiences where people were interested in me, but as soon as they know I’m Palestinian or Arab, my card is put on the side. But these things don’t affect me, I actually enjoy it. I want to work with people who don’t want to work with me, because I would like to sit down with them and explain.

Do you think there has been an increase in appreciation for Arab culture in the fashion industry?
We used to see less of it, but now we see it more. I feel like with a diverse group of individuals, there is less room for cultural appropriation. We’ve seen a change in recent years and things are getting better. I’m a witness to this change, and I enjoy it so much more now. I get to meet and connect with great like minded people. 

You recently modeled for Jean Paul Gaultier and worked with Bella Hadid — you’re both Palestinian. What was that like?
It was such a great experience. I was sitting with the MUA and suddenly I hear someone say “Hello, I’m Bella!” Afterwards, we had a great conversation about me being Palestinian and spoke about visiting Palestine. She is so humble and is overall an amazing and very charismatic person. It was also the first time I worked with a Palestinian on set, that was so great and it will always be something that will value for the rest of my life.

What has been the most unusual or unexpected experience you came across whilst modeling/ being on set?
I don’t know if I should say unusual, but they asked me to play music on set once, so I got up and played Shireen. People were dancing to Arabic music and I loved it.

Do you see yourself a part of the new breed of models who come from outside the traditional spectrum, hence challenging industry norms?
Most models have always challenged industry norms. There is a constant shift in the industry because of models. Models have influenced some of the greatest designers and have become muses for them. Every time there’s a new breed of models, the industry adapts. Look at where we are now, the industry is finally more diverse. My generation is the generation of social media, we understand its power, how we can use it, and shape a safer space around us. We’ve utilized this aspect to call for a more inclusive and diverse industry, and we’re slowly making it happen. For example, I use it as a platform for indigenous people, namely being Palestinian. I would hope to see more POC activists becoming models. We need it in fashion.

What is the most challenging thing about being in this industry?
You never know what’s coming next, but that could be a good thing. It keeps you on your toes, I personally enjoy that.

What advice would you give to Arabs who look up to you now, and want to also enter the modeling world?
Do not be afraid, do not worry. It’s always better to connect with an agent and see how things go. Reach out to an agency, send in your Polaroids, many are looking for Arab models. You can do it, I did it, and I’m certain that you can too.