Listening to the Many Voices of Haifa

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Commentator Andrei Codrescu spends some time in Haifa, Israel, and enjoys hearing the many languages spoken on the streets. A bite of a Haifa orange brought back childhood memories, and a flood of thoughts about the joy of learning many tongues.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Middle East was one of many stops on a trip commentator Andrei Codrescu took this year. And while he was there, he was reminded of the value of diversity.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

In Haifa, Israel, I heard six languages in five minutes: English, Romanian, French, Arabic, Hebrew and Russian. I had a Haifa orange in Haifa, and my childhood came back to me. When I was growing up in Romania in the '50s, we children got a Haifa orange for Christmas. It came wrapped in crinkly paper with black Hebrew letters on it and it was magical, lighting up my whole room the entire night of Christmas like a gift from heaven. Heaven isn't far from Haifa. It may actually be in Haifa. And neither is hell, which is in Megiddo, less than 20 minutes from here. There are traffic signs pointing to the place.

From my hotel window, I saw the sparkling Gulf of Haifa with the outline of Syrian mountains to the right and the shore of Lebanon on the left. The terraces of Mt. Carmel stretched down to the sea. Pastel villas rose straight out of green parks and groves of orange trees and rose bushes.

Nearby, the Crusader citadel at Akra is still being dug out; its nightly hauls dating to year 1012. The medieval Arab village of Akra is built on top of it, and in its twisting streets, there is an ancient market where I ate Sayeed's hummus(ph), the best hummus in the world. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I heard the musing cry while young couples waited in line for Sayeed's hummus. It set my bar for hummus very high.

My cousin in Tel Aviv has a theory. She says that great foods shock the brain and act against depression. I think it's the same with languages. The more you hear all at once, the better you feel. I was in Haifa at a poetry conference where we discussed such things as maternal languages vs. acquired ones. Hebrew is the language of Israel, but for some of its greatest poets, it was a second language after Latvian or Russian. In my opinion, all languages are maternal if a mother speaks them. Acquiring other languages is like acquiring new mothers; it's a great way to luxuriate in the world.

And then, of course, you read the Jerusalem Post and find out how many people were wounded in yesterday's clashes between Arabs and Israelis, and how the lost tribe of Israel that performs circumcisions with a flint knife is moving into the occupied territories. So it's a luxury, all right, to speak the languages if you don't actually live where they fight first and speak later.

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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