During tense times between Israelis and Palestinians, Jerusalem-born Qaher Harhash manages to be a successful model, high school student and an inspiring figure all at once. Now, he wants to conquer the runways.
Qaher Harhash, the first Palestinian male model, is still somewhat excited when talking about his recent success, as perhaps expected from a 17-year-old high school student.
Born in East Jerusalem to a Muslim family, his modeling aspirations were often cut down by the harsh political reality surrounding him.
Armed soldiers were not an unusual sight in his neighborhood. When he was in the third grade, while the family was having dinner, Harhash noticed red laser points on the heads of his family members. The very same night, the Israeli army raided his house and arrested his uncle.
During his efforts to get ahead in the fashion industry, he had many hurdles to navigate - sometimes literally - traveling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv through checkpoints and security guards.
But against all odds, Harhash is determined to make his modeling dream come true. "I won't stop and I will work to achieve it no matter what," he told DW.
Constantly sending out his photos to agencies in vain led to great disappointments, but the young man didn't give up. Finally, for the first time, it seems to have paid off. After multiple attempts, Roberto Models Agency, run by the renowned Israeli agent Robert Ben-Shoshan, has signed him.
Primarily, Harhash was rejected mainly under the excuse that the Israeli public is not yet ready for a Palestinian model. Brands were often tempted to use his innocent appearance and androgynous look, but backed off at the last minute, fearing that he won't be fully accepted after Israelis learn about his origin.
"I got so many rejections," he says. "I was overlooked as soon as something happened [politically]. It made me feel like we [Palestinians] are just being looked through and generalized."
Not losing hope, Harhash says he doesn't blame Israelis for being suspicious. "It's the same thing with them, too, Israelis are also being generalized all the time. The only way to break this cycle is to have good people speaking peace."
The initial outcomes were obviously a letdown for the young model, even if understandable. "There's always this inner debate, whether I didn't get a contract because I'm a Palestinian, or simply because I'm not the right face," he says.
"I've been told by many customers that they wanted to work with me, but couldn't do it because I'm a Palestinian. It increased especially after the recent clashes, but I don't see them as racist because I know this is how this industry works."
Harhash is the youngest of five children, and his parents went through a divorce when he was seven years old. At about the same age, he started to think about a modeling career.
Harhash, together with Israeli model Noam Frost, in a campaign for the first designer to work with him, Rina Zin
Harhash was inspired by fashion shows. He used to watch TV with his sisters when he realized that he might also have a chance in this industry. "My sisters were teenagers who were watching Fashion TV all the time," he recalls.
"In one of the shows, Tyson Beckford appeared [a model of Jamaican and Chinese descent who later became an actor] and I thought he was very unique. He was a true inspiration for me."
"I was always interested in fashion," he remembers. "I liked drawing designs and cut paper, that's why my parents always thought I wanted to be a designer."
But it was only at the age of 14 that Harhash told his family that modeling is his true interest. "When I started to grow up, I got taller and my face started to change. I thought to myself 'maybe I have a shot at this, maybe I can be successful, too.'"
The family eventually accepted his wish. "They thought that if this is what I want to do then I should go for it, but they also said I should always remember where I come from. That I should never lose my true self."
Ben-Shoshan, who discovered Harhash and immediately signed him to his agency, is convinced that some people are still too conservative or racist to accept a Palestinian model, but believes that many are also open minded and curious.
"Personally I don't look at someone's origins. I see the model as a person, I see his abilities, his talent and his looks," he told DW.
"Qaher has a very unique look. He is very tall, with very distinct face and from the first second he opened his mouth I could see his charm. We connected instantly. He is very intelligent and he knows exactly what he wants, very motivated and ambitious. I felt like he has a true chance to make it big time - both nationally and internationally."
Harhash studies at the Jerusalem American International School, which has given him almost flawless English. Somehow, he says, he has been able to combine school and work.
"I have always been a multi-tasker," he says, "especially since my parents' divorce, when I pretty much had to maneuver between that situation and my childhood. I'm still doing my homework, sometimes leaving school in the middle of the day if I have a meeting at an agency. Sometimes I even do my homework while waiting at the agency, but all in all I'm able to do both."
Harhash is hoping that one day he will appear on the cover of renowned magazines, or walk the runways of the biggest names. "Basically living the modeling industry, traveling, meeting new people, understanding different narratives. I want to be a recognized face in the industry."
But he has a deeper message, too. "I want to be every kid's dream and a person to look up to," he says.
"I know I represent passion, love, and coexistence but I would also love to be this figure that tells people to do what they love and not to listen to this little person in their head that tells them they are not enough. If you put words into actions, nothing can stop you.
"No matter what you've been told and no matter how many people tried to bring you down, because of your nationality, your color, your race, because of who you are - don't stop. Don't listen to these people because it only takes one person to see the diamond in you."