Star-crossed

Her mother was a famous singer; her father an actor. And then there was her biological father, Aris San, the king of Jaffa nightlife in the 1960s. On the 19th anniversary of San's death, Sani Azikri-Carmel tells the story of her parents, a tale whose tragic ending is woven into the music and the romance.

In the legend of Aris San, the main character is timing. A few years earlier or later and the legend would not have been written. But the timing was perfect. In the late 1950s, when young Israel yearned for the exotic, for a glimpse of foreign lands, when it was overcome by longing for Europe, a boy of 17 and a guitar appeared in the country. Aristides Saisanas, a native of Kalamata in Greece, sailed from Athens to Israel. On the deck of the ship, he changed his name to Aris San, thereby marking out his path for the next 35 years.

Sani Azikri-Carmel
Sani Azikri-CarmelDaniel Tchetchik

They were 35 years of life full of passion for music and women, for wealth and a glorious career. The 35 years ended as they had begun: He came from nowhere, touched the stars and crashed very painfully. On July 25, 1992, a few reports appeared on the back pages of Israeli newspapers about the mysterious death in Hungary of the person who had been considered the king of Jaffa nightlife, and afterward of New York.

The background to his appearance in Israel, and to his personality, was never completely explained. It was said he had come here to follow a girl he fell in love with, a new immigrant from Turkey. It was said that an Israeli impresario had discovered him in the Athens tavernas. Aliza Azikri, his partner, claimed he was a pacifist and had fled Greece to avoid being drafted into the army. They say that one day he showed up in Haifa. Others are willing to swear he came to Jaffa. And maybe he emerged from the fishermen's nets. Whatever the case, Jaffa became his home. He began playing at the Arianna nightclub, the bastion of Israelis from Salonika, and at the height of his Israeli career he was a partner in four nightclubs.

One night, a young singer just out of the army happened to visit his nightclub. Lucy Maloul was born in Morocco in 1941. At the age of six she lost her mother and was sent to Palestine with Youth Aliyah. In Palestine she wandered among institutions and kibbutzim: Beit Alpha, Amir and Kiryat Yearim, and her name was changed to Aliza. Maloul was drafted, finished a paramedics' course, and served in a clinic in the Tank Corps. Shaul Bieber, the education officer of the corps, heard her singing at a party and suggested she join the Tank Corps entertainment troupe. "He told her: 'Come to the troupe, we need a voice like yours,' and in the audition she met Nissim Azikri, who managed the troupe," says her daughter, Sani Azikri-Carmel, "and they started dating."

There are several versions of the fateful meeting between Aris San and Aliza. "One day she was walking with Nissim to a Jaffa nightclub were Aris San was performing," says Azikri-Carmel. "He approached their table and spoke to them, and my mother felt the fire that had been ignited between them. But she was Nissim Azikri's girlfriend, and they got married and had a daughter, Fani ."

According to another version, Azikri was performing at Club Med and San heard her, was enthusiastic and invited her to sing in his Jaffa club. Moshe Ben Ami, the accordionist who performed with Aris San for about a year and a half, says that he introduced them. "It was a chance meeting," he says. "I was performing with Aliza in Ashkelon, because her regular accordionist was busy and she asked me to replace him. We returned to Tel Aviv by taxi, and she said she was going to sign a contract at the Kalif club and I said I would drop into Zorba, Aris San's club, and I took her to Jaffa on my motor scooter. On the way we passed the Habima Theater; Nissim was there at a rehearsal, and she told him to go home and send Fani's babysitter home. Then we drove to Zorba and sat there for about half an hour, and Aris was onstage all the time, playing and singing, and nothing happened between them.

"The next day I went to Cafe Noga, next to the Mugrabi, the entire entertainment industry was sitting there, and he approached me and asked: 'Who's that girl who was with you yesterday?' I said, 'That's not a girl, that's a singer.' So he said: 'You don't say, I've been looking for a singer for a long time, and I can't find one.' He turned to her impresario, and that's how the connection was made."

Azikri was slim and pretty, like an exotic china doll. "Beautiful and terrific, you couldn't define her origins, she had slanted eyes and straight hair, she looked as though she was from the Far East," says Tzedi Tzarfati, who this year directed the musical "Sigal" at Habima, inspired by the love story of Azikri and San. "I met her at the same time. I was an actor, we hung around in Cafe Kassit, the country was small and everyone knew everyone else. She was a laughing, crazy, very temperamental person. She didn't think twice about anything she did. He was a romantic, he courted every female around. She called him a maniac. He thought it would be another one-night stand, and suddenly they both lost their heads."

A new energy

Aliza Azikri had been very popular as an army troupe soloist, but when she completed her service she couldn't find her niche. Songwriter Nachum Heiman met her during that period and recorded her singing some of the songs he had composed. "Meir Harnik told me about her," says Heiman. "He said: 'There's a singer who should sing your songs.'" Heiman is unable to say exactly when that was. "When we were young and attractive," he says, "in an undefined time, when all the legends had dreamy colors. I came to her, she lived on Hahashmonaim Street in Tel Aviv. The door was opened by Nissim Azikri, her husband. She had just come out of the shower in some transparent outfit and she was as beautiful as the moon and the sun combined. I said to her: 'Shalom, I'm Nahtche, I came from the kibbutz, I wanted to offer you a song.' And we recorded 'Tziyur Bitzva'im' (Colored Drawing ) with the Gilboa Quintet and became true friends.

"Afterward, at the Mizrahi Song Festival, she sang a song of mine, 'Haduda'im Natnu Reiham' (The Scent of the Mandrakes ), which became a classic. I consider her a wonderful singer. She sat on that hidden fence of vocal expression that is between East and West, which is invisible and incomprehensible to many. She knew exactly how much to trill. She made the headlines just when this style was first appearing on the mainstream stage."

A professional and romantic relationship developed between Aliza Azikri and Aris San, which filled every possible gossip column. He started writing songs for her. Together they recorded her song "Na'ara Mamash Otzar" (A Real Treasure of a Girl ). She taught him Hebrew; he composed songs for her. And Nissim Azikri? For years he played the role of victim, with the press reporting that Aliza had abandoned him for her crazy love for San.

"That's what my sister and I thought all those years. But it's really not true," says Sani. "Nissim traveled with a Habima play and cheated on my mother with some actress. But mother never corrected us, and Father Azikri maintained silence. One day he called me over and told me the truth: 'I don't know how it happened, but your mother felt that something was wrong and wrung it out of me, and then everything blew up.'"

The Azikris separated, and the professional and romantic relationship between San and Aliza created a new and unfamiliar type of energy here. "He brought her into the niche of Mizrahi [Mediterranean style] music," says Tzarfati. "She came from an army entertainment troupe, which says a lot, and which was very far from that. But she soon took off in artistic terms, turned the country upside-down with 'Na'ara Mamash Otzar.' Because of her he began writing in Hebrew, and his career also turned around thanks to her.

"During that period the concept of Mizrahi song didn't exist. There weren't any Mizrahi singers as yet and that's why the entire world of Mediterranean music worships him to this day, because he was the first to play an electric guitar like a bouzouki. Nobody in the world had done that before him. He changed the face of music in Israel.

"The establishment adopted him. At first as something exotic, later thanks to his music. He became an Israeli icon and all the bigwigs came to see him. The only record my father ever bought was one by Aris San, and I immediately closed all the shutters so that none of the neighbors would hear it, heaven forfend."

In hindsight, Aris San's appearance seems amusing. His thin Clark Cable mustache, his short stature, his elegant suits and his endless shimmying with the guitar look ridiculous today. But in the 1960s his Jaffa club, Arianna, became a pagan temple for senior officers and members of Mapai (forerunner of Labor and then the ruling party ), who loved to have a good time. "There were lines at night around the Jaffa clock tower, all the way to the club," said Aliza Azikri in the documentary by Dalia Mevorach and Dani Dothan, "The Mystery of Aris San," which was screened at the Jerusalem International Film Festival in 2007.

It is not clear how San managed to receive Israeli citizenship. Maybe it was his patron Mordechai Tzarfati (known as Mentesh ), who lobbied his friend Moshe Dayan, who asked Ben-Gurion to help. "And he carried around that passport with great pride," says Azikri-Carmel. "It's not clear how a boy of 17 comes here and falls in love with the country, falls in love with Israelis, and becomes more of an Israeli patriot than a Greek one, when his entire family remained there."

Ruth Dayan recalls the friendship with Aris San. Of course she does. He and his band played at the double wedding of her children Assi and Yael, who got married on the same day. "We had a long acquaintance with Aris San," she says. "Moshe and I loved to go to Arianna on Friday or Saturday night. We would go to the movies and then to Arianna. We loved to dance there. Everyone loved being there."

Did Moshe Dayan help Aris San receive Israeli citizenship?

"It's possible. At the time I didn't take an interest, I didn't even know that he wasn't a citizen and that he wasn't Jewish."

The way San appeared in Israel, the speed with which he received Israeli citizenship, and his close relationship with top army brass, raised doubts about his legality. Suddenly there were reports and rumors that he was actually a spy. "It's not clear for whom he could have spied," says Azikri-Carmel. "They said he hid a camera in his guitar. Mother always said that with all due respect, he wasn't intelligent enough to be a spy." San denied the rumors out of hand and continued to appear in the gossip columns.

The artistic collaboration and the affair between San and Azikri lasted for about four years. And maybe it could have lasted forever. But apparently not. "One day some man from one of his nightclubs came to Mother and said: 'Do you know that he's married?' And she replied: 'And I'm pregnant,'" says Azikri-Carmel. "He concealed it not only from my mother but from the whole world. It's hard to understand in today's terms. They were a couple to all intents and purposes, he used to come to sleep at her house and at the same time was conducting a double life, and she didn't suspect a thing. When she told him she was pregnant, he wanted her to have an abortion and she said absolutely not. He panicked and their affair ended with a major blow-up."

The Tel Aviv Bohemian crowd was astonished. Aris San married? The news magazine Haolam Hazeh, which couldn't forgive its own intelligence failure, came out with a cover story: "Aliza Azikri is about to give birth to Aris San's illegitimate son." That son was a daughter.

To America and back

Sani Azikri-Carmel, 42, tall and slender, looks like both her mother and her father. She has a Pilates studio in Tel Aviv, on the site where Mia Arbatova, the legendary ballet teacher, had her studio, and is head of Pilates at the Wingate Institute, Israel's National Centre for Physical Education and Sport. She studied dance and movement and has translated her parents' artistic and creative talent into body language. Although her mother and Nissim Azikri were divorced, she grew up to a certain extent in a home atmosphere with two parents. Azikri gave her his family name and was present in her life as a father.

"My mother lived on Hahashmonaim, corner of Kiryat Sefer, and he lived on Yehuda Halevi, corner of Hahashmonaim, and they were together all the time. He was the father of Fani, my sister, and according to the photographs it looks as though he lived in our house. He was present at my birth. I was born on the eve of Yom Kippur. In the morning Aris San was with Mother, they quarreled and Mother said that some blows were exchanged and then she went to hospital. The rabbi at the hospital told her that I was holy and that I atoned for all her sins. When she looked for a name for me she deliberated between Cafri and Sani."

The first thing she recalls from her childhood is that she had two fathers. "They always told me that I could choose whomever I liked, Father Azikri or Aris San. When Nissim made me angry, he would say: 'No problem, go to Aris San.'"

But you couldn't simply go to Aris San. He lived in New York. He left Israel several months after Sani was born. He was angry that he didn't receive the David's Harp award for outstanding Israeli artists. "He wasn't really present in my life," she says. "I was aware of the fact that I had a father called Aris San. I met him for the first time when we were in the United States, at the age of seven. I remember he took us to a Chinese restaurant, and they prepared the food before our eyes and it was amazing, and we played hide-and-seek and catch with him, and from then on we began to be in touch by mail and telephone."

When she was nine, Aris San came to visit. "He called me 'Doll, Maideleh,' and I insisted that I wasn't his daughter, that I already had a father. I stayed awake all night listening to what was happening in the living room between him and my mother. From that moment Mother, my sister and I began calling Aris San 'His Honor,' in order to distinguish between him and Father Azikri.

"Anyone who hears today that I'm the daughter of Aris San and Aliza Azikri wants to touch this Greek tragedy. Half the country says they knew Aris San personally and the other half says that I sat on their knees when I was little. We attended the play 'Sigal' and heard people behind us chattering, stories without any truth to them."

In 1973 Aliza was invited to tour in the U.S. She took her two daughters and stayed in New Rochelle, New York. "Mother performed and made millions. We lived in a huge villa, we had a full-time nanny. I studied at a private Jewish school." In 1977 the family returned to Israel after financial complications with Azikri's impresarios. The girls were sent to Kibbutz Hagoshrim, and their mother returned to the U.S. to rehabilitate herself financially.

Azikri-Carmel remembers the period in the kibbutz with great emotion as a time of pure happiness. But not from the first moment. "We came from America, I wore dresses and pigtails and I didn't know Hebrew. Mother stayed with us for two weeks and disappeared. At first it was very hard. The children pushed and tormented us, there was only one girl there whose mother was British and we would speak English to each other in secret. But later on, the moment I started wearing their clothes, I became one of them. The children's house? Fortunately we all suffered from the same thing. Everyone had the same feeling that their parents weren't with them. Once someone asked, 'What's better, a mother nearby on the kibbutz whom you see in the afternoon, or a distant mother like Sani's who sends packages?' Everyone said that a mother who sends packages and gifts is preferable."

Was anyone at Hagoshrim impressed by the name Aris San?

"They knew who he was, they saw him on Fridays on television and there were giggles in the dining room, but there was a feeling that they had less respect for him because he was a Mizrahi singer, music that we don't listen to."

In 1983, when she was in 10th grade, her mother returned to Israel and she went to live with her in Tel Aviv. She attended Ironi Aleph High School, but a year later returned to the kibbutz. "I ran away from there. I didn't understand why we had to stand and say 'Teacher' [on the kibbutz teachers are addressed by their first names], and wear a school uniform."

Aliza Azikri didn't continue living in Tel Aviv much longer either. She returned from the U.S. emotionally and physically spent, and decided to stop performing. On one of her trips to Eilat, to a house she owned, she was crossing the road when she was severely injured by a passing car. She was hospitalized for a long time and it was feared she would be unable to walk again.

After the accident she stayed in Eilat and severed herself almost completely from her previous life. "At the age of 50 she retired," says Azikri-Carmel. "She studied languages, volunteered for all kinds of things, but didn't sing again."

Azikri-Carmel's connection with her biological father was conducted mainly by mail. He wrote her in Hebrew in English letters. "He always apologized for not being in touch with me, but he wrote that he always loved me and worried about me. He sent me a bicycle for my bat mitzvah and everyone was very excited. The entire kibbutz came to see the marvel that had arrived from America, and the photographer came to take my picture with the bicycle."

When she was drafted, she asked for a combat position far from home. "I came from the kibbutz, I wanted to be a fighter, so they told me: 'The fact that you're the daughter of Aris San and Aliza Azikri doesn't mean you can do whatever you want." She was sent to serve in the military prosecutor's office.

The first significant meeting with her father was at about the age of 19, when he came to visit Israel. "My sister told me: 'Look, Sani, His Honor is in Israel.' The paper wrote that he was at the Hilton Hotel. I went there in uniform and approached the reception desk; I asked if Aris San was staying here, they told me he was. I said I was his daughter and wanted to wait for him. I waited in the lobby from the morning, but I wasn't sure what he looked like, so the guy at reception told me he was tall and wore suits. I kept looking at the door so I wouldn't miss him.

"And then he arrived, short and chubby, wearing a ridiculous wig and a sweatshirt, and approached the reception desk. I waited, I wanted to hear them say 'Good morning, Mr. San,' so I wouldn't commit a blunder. Afterward I stood next to him at the desk and he immediately recognized me, and said: 'Bubeleh' and we embraced and started to cry and all the people around us were crying along with me; they were very emotional. And then we went upstairs and he said: 'You're a mature girl now, so I can tell you. I didn't want to leave you, but the press drove us crazy, and I'm married, I have a wife and children.' He returned to the U.S. and invited me to America and I went."

When night falls

San opened a nightclub in New York called Sirocco, where he did what he had done in Jaffa but on a larger scale. Very large. His name was whispered everywhere, and very soon the place was too small to contain everyone who knocked on the door. Among the regulars were famous movie actors who loved the relaxed atmosphere. In the film by Mevorach and Dothan, Anthony Quinn is seen dancing the Sirtaki, Telly Savalas whispers to San, and Elizabeth Taylor waits at the entrance to be seated. Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. are also there. At the height of his New York career, Aris San had a white Rolls Royce with a black chauffeur. Much more than he could have dreamed of in Jaffa.

His daughter Sani visited him when she took her post-army trip with her boyfriend, Ido Carmel. "We took a coast-to-coast trip on a motorcycle; afterward we stayed in Los Angeles. I ran an athletic club for women there. Part of the time I was in New York. I went to the Sirocco every time Father informed me that the coast was clear because his wife, Poppy, didn't want to see me there."

Ruth Dayan was also one of the regular visitors to Sirocco. "Every time I traveled to New York on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal, or Maskit or Tel Hashomer, late at night, together with my secretary, we went to Sirocco. It was a huge hall and he played onstage, but when he saw us he would make sure to have us seated in the first row. There was a good bar and good music there, as in Greece. Later I read that he had gotten into trouble. It's strange, I knew him as a naive person whom everyone loved. To this day I don't understand what happened."

Dani Dothan, writer, filmmaker, musician, soloist of The Clique band, met San in New York in 1982, when he wrote a profile of him for the now-defunct Monitin magazine. "I met him by chance and he dragged me to the club and hosted me every day for a week," says Dothan. "He was very charismatic and friendly and a very talented musician. He did amazing things with the guitar. He was a fun person. He showed me piles of letters from all kinds of important people in Israel, including Arik Sharon. I think there was a very strong musical connection between him and Aliza, one of those rare miracles."

Azikri-Carmel returned from the U.S. and married Ido, who works in construction. They have two sons - Shane ("one of ours" in an American Indian language ) 16, and Orian , six.

Meanwhile, in New York, San's wealth began to work against him. It attracted drugs and "respected" businessmen from the Italian Mafia, a combination that turned out to be lethal. San started to go downhill, gained weight and "was deep into cocaine," according to his New York-Israeli impresario, Elias Dishi, who appears in the film by Mevorach and Dothan. One day the police seized a large quantity of drugs from one of the mafiosos who was at Sirocco, and arrested San for interrogation. The FBI suggested he cooperate and turn informer, but he remained silent. San was convicted of drug dealing and served a two-year prison sentence.

He was released from prison broken and defeated, and nothing was as it had been. Sirocco was closed. Deep in debt, San opened a poultry business in Harlem and dreamed of a comeback. Dishi promised he would be a big success; they would travel to Israel and he would be rehabilitated there. Meanwhile he got San jobs singing at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings. At some point he opened a nightclub called Cosmico, but it was unsuccessful.

In 1991 Azikri-Carmel was in New York, and arranged with San to register his paternity at the Israeli consulate. "To this day, the name of my father is missing on my Israeli identity card," she says. "I asked him to take care of the matter and we began the process. And then suddenly in the middle he informed me that he was traveling to Hungary for a performance tour. I said: 'But we're right in the middle.' Then he said, 'What are you worried about, I'll come back and we'll finish everything, now I need the money.' Later they said he had fled from the New York Mafia."

San traveled to Budapest, but never returned. He wandered around there for several months, performed here and there, lived in a wretched apartment house. Once he was ambushed by unknown persons in the stairwell and badly beaten. One day he was walking down the street with his impresario Dishi, felt unwell and was rushed to a hospital. "I was in Los Angeles at the time," says Azikri-Carmel, "and in the middle of the night a journalist from Israel contacted me and asked for my reaction to the fact that my father was dead. I told her that Father had died last year, referring to Father Azikri, so she said there was a rumor in Israel that Aris San was dead. I was in shock. I called his wife, Poppy, pretending to be a fan from Israel, and she confirmed it."

Rumors about San's death, like those about his appearance in Israel and his entire life in fact, continued to fuel the legend. Dishi was the only one who saw his body and he was the one who arranged for its cremation, claiming that the family had requested this. He returned to New York with the urn of ashes, and there the funeral was held. Dishi is convinced that Aris San was murdered in the hospital; that the Italian Mafia had completed the job as planned. There are also those who are convinced to this day that Aris San is alive.

"It became absurd," says Azikri-Carmel. "Nobody knows the truth about his death either, and that arouses a lot of interest, like that surrounding Elvis. Nobody saw the body, except for Dishi, and Dishi can't be found anywhere today. The cause of death is not clear either. Until her dying day, Mother believed he was alive, that he had changed his identity and was still walking around somewhere."

Aliza Azikri died of cancer two and a half years ago. To a certain degree her death was also mysterious and incomprehensible. She ignored the signs of the illness that had apparently been present for many years, and chose not to take care of herself. At the last moment she was transferred from Eilat to the Beilinson Medical Center in Petah Tikva, where she died a few hours later. "The doctor said she had a huge lump in her chest," says Azikri-Carmel, "and that it had been there for a long time. She smoked a lot, three to four packs a day. Whenever they told her to stop smoking she would light up another cigarette."

In recent years, Aris San and Aliza Azikri have been borne on waves of nostalgia and longing. Evidence of that is "Sigal," the play at Habima, which was the initiative of the previous general director Yaakov Agmon, and the show "Na'ara Mamash Otzar," a Kobi Herling production that is being performed all over the country.

For Azikri-Carmel, longing for her mother and her two fathers raises melancholy thoughts. "Artists are so self-centered that they don't have time for children," she says. "When I came to visit Aris San at the hotel, I asked to see pictures of his children and he said he didn't have any, but in his room he had arranged many pictures of himself on the mirror. My relationship with Mother was also complicated. She wasn't here, even if for all the right reasons. When I needed someone I would speak to Ido. He was always with me. Fani was also my mother to some extent.

"Today I see the foreign workers who leave their children with their grandmothers and come here to work and send money home; my mother did the same thing. And yes, to her last day she loved Aris. She had nobody except for him. It was the love of her life. Dishi told me that Aris was crazy about her, too, until his dying day." W