The piper of Haifa

An enchanting tour guide adds a musical note to his expert excursions around the town.

haifa tourism 88  (photo credit: )
haifa tourism 88
(photo credit: )
Tour guide Yair Herdan will give you music wherever you go. Haifa-born Herdan leads groups and individuals along the geographical, historical and biblical paths of Israel to the beat of the rumba, salsa or even a full-cheeked Satchmo number as he plays his ever-ready trumpet in the street for all to hear. Many a young overseas student visiting Israel on a birthright tour will remember their guide summoning them back to their waiting bus with a few bars of a well-known Israeli folk song or a verse or two not from the Bible but the Beatles. A day spent with Herdan in his native city quickly put a smile on my face, as before and after his explanations he blasted away on his trumpet, bringing on hand-clapping from people in the street and neighboring buildings. He spent much of his childhood playing with predominantly Arab Christian and Muslim kids in the narrow winding alleyways of the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood in downtown Haifa. His parents lived a short walk away from the wadi, where his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, lived. "The sights, smells and background noises of Wadi Nisnas, with its vibrant marketplace in the center and the many people living in close proximity to each other were an important and integral part of my childhood," explains Herdan, who now lives in Kiryat Yam. Before taking us on the Haifa walkabout, he had been dealing with a group of eight-year-old Jewish students on an Education Ministry's get-to-know-your-city project. For them, the musical interludes were tunes popular with the Jewish workers from Eastern Europe who settled in the port city more than a hundred years ago. Dividing the city into three sections - Ahuza at the top of the Carmel mountain; Hadar in the middle; and the lower slopes down to the port - Herdan winds his way from top to bottom with an attentive audience in tow as we zigzag down a good portion of the 1,000 stone steps on his special offer route. "Haifa has always been a three-tier town. When people in Wadi Nisnas 'made it' they would move up to Hadar; and when Hadar people succeeded, then it was all the way up to the top of the Carmel," explained Herdan. A natural-born storyteller, he touches on the intimate to the wild side of life in Wadi Nisnas. He paints a colorful verbal picture of characters real and imaginary - the latter taken from one book in particular, The Trumpet in the Wadi. It a love story written by the popular Iraqi-born Israeli writer Sami Michael, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. The main characters in the book are a local Arab lady and a trumpet-playing new immigrant from Russia who comes to live in the neighborhood prior to the Lebanese war in the early l980s. Wadi Nisnas, which has undergone renovations in recent years, is now the site of the popular Festival of Festivals, a joint celebration of Ramadan, Christmas and Hanukka through street music, theater and works of art in all mediums. Some of the artwork from previous years remains in the wadi, and the area has become something of an outdoor permanent art gallery. "The relationships between the Arab and Jewish residents of Wadi Nisnas are special, even though they have gone through periods of tension in the past," he said. Set in glass frames around the neighborhood are posters quoting sections from Michael's book and quotes from Arab authors and journalists the likes of Emil Touma and Emil Habibi, friends of Michael's. "As a kid I remember seeing these guys coming out of there and going down to the sea with their fishing rods," Herdan recalls, pointing to an attractive stone building that houses an Arabic newspaper as it did in the days of the two Emils and Michael. We finish our tour with Herdan standing under one of the framed wall plaques featuring an Emil Touma quote. The Haifa hornblower crosses his arms and hugs his beloved trumpet to his chest. "This is my special one," he says, flicking his head in the direction of the wall behind. The plaque reads: "I was born in this city and I have no other homeland but this homeland. I sometimes wonder when it will be possible to enjoy Haifa's beauty without the fears of wars and bloodshed." On that note, we finished our very special tour, conducted by a son of the city.