Volume 17, Number 46 | April 8 — 14, 2005

The Penny Post

Israel: On the road

By Andrei Codrescu

I am not the first biologist to say this: diversity is good for you. I’m writing this in Haifa, Israel, where I heard six languages in the past five minutes. Three of us were speaking English and Romanian, two of us were talking French, two of us were speaking Arabic, a goggle of teenagers was sharing in pizza in Russian, and all around us there was a buzz of Hebrew like a fine fishing net. 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. The final battle between God and Satan will take place in Megiddo, a.k.a. Armageddon. There are traffic signs pointing to the place, just as there are ones pointing to Jerusalem, where I’m going tomorrow.

From my hotel window I can see 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 Mount Carmel stretch down to the sea. Pastel villas rise straight out of green parks and groves of orange trees and rose bushes. Yesterday I went to see the Crusader citadel at Akra which is still being dug out, its knightly halls dating to year 1012. The medieval Arab village of Akra was built on top of it and in its twisting streets there is an ancient market where I ate Said’s hummus, the best hummus in the world, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I heard the muezzin cry out while young couples waited in line for Said’s hummus. It set my bar for hummus as high as Josi’s Romanian restaurant in Downtown Haifa set my bar for Romanian food. After Jerusalem, I’m going to Tel Aviv to see my cousin, then to Romania, a country I’ll put to Josi’s test. My cousin in Tel Aviv has a theory I’m curious about: she says that strange foods shock the brain and act against depression. By “strange foods” she means anything you haven’t eaten before. I think it’s the same with languages: the more you hear all at once, the better you feel. I’m in Haifa at a poetry conference being conducted in Hebrew, Arabic, French, and English, organized by the French Department at the University of Haifa, and we are discussing such things as “maternal” languages versus “acquired” ones. Hebrew is the language of Israel, but for some of its greatest poets it was a second language after Latvian, or Russian. A young Arab woman recited a lovely poem in her language and then explained that she was a feminist who was breaking the rules both in her Palestinian culture, which is pretty patriarchal, and in Israel where few Arab women publish poetry. 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 you read the Jerusalem Post and find out how many people were wounded in yesterday’s clashes, and how a lost tribe of Israel that performs circumcisions with a flint knife, is moving into the occupied territories Sharon is trying to move people out of, and how soome of the people being moved out are planning to take over pristine beaches near Tel-Aviv, a prospects that has environmentalists fuming. So it’s a luxury alright, if you don’t actually live here.


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