Sunday, 8 July 2012

Shades of Exodus

Guest blogger BARRY LEVY wrestles with  the immigrant's perspective of home

We (Jewish) South Africans are a very stubborn, hard-headed bunch.

Having said that, let me explain. If we are wrong, or found to be wrong, we will readily admit our error, and far more so and more vocally than many others (that we now live amongst).

But when it comes to big, life-changing issues - like migration - we are never wrong. We only ever make such decisions because they are absolutely right and will lead to a better life now and for future generations. We also tend to hate and swear a pox on the old country.

But, you see, there is a bit of an irony in this - our big decision to migrate from S'effrica, and I hear it in the echoes of my own parents at the height of the days of apartheid. Sitting around on a Friday night/Sunday afternoon, under the lazy South African sun (Jo'burg), they would guiltlessly say things like many of us say over here now (at least in public): 'There isn’t a better country in the world. This is God’s own country.’

The question is, and this is really one of the big questions in my new work of fiction, Shades of Exodus: Can there really be an instant love for another country? Do people who express this sort of sentiment, really, truly, absolutely mean it in their heart? Or are they just trying to be as positive as they possibly can?

You see, not for us (Jewish) South Africans (except among ourselves) any admissions of loss or emotional fragmentation when we choose to shift entire countries, entire societies. Rather there be a sense of, we’re a pretty tough lot (our grandparents or great grandparents did it before us), and the pain of adjustment, if there be any - and there probably ain’t - is unimportant.

Why should there be any pain? After all, we only ever choose the best for ourselves and our children, and like nature’s finest trees, we can thrive anywhere. We are universal people.

But this, in many ways, is what makes South African migrants, generally and particularly Jewish ones, different to others. Not that the pain or that sense of loss and fragmentation aren’t there, just the admission of it is missing. Actually, we don't even like to think of ourselves as immigrants - and hate the word migrants, which applies to birds or poor Africans or pushy Middle Eastern refugees.

And this is what Shades of Exodus explores: the deepest feelings of people who may have left their country for the best and most defensible reasons, but somehow find it necessary to deny any pain or upheaval.

The reality, as I have personally found (as much as we think we fit anywhere where English is spoken), is that migration is difficult for anyone. Be they starving Sudanese, fleeing-for-their-lives Afghanis, or even be they from the UK or the USA. And yes, that includes us South Africans.

OK, I grant, and readily: Like most migrants, there are very real reasons why South Africans - even rich ones - have chosen to live in other countries. One need only look at two broad waves: A million or so left in the decade before the end of apartheid - mainly for reasons related to apartheid - and secondly, a million more who have left since the demise of apartheid, mainly for reasons of rampant violent crime and black economic empowerment - a system (rightly) put in place to give blacks the start they were always denied, but which has acted as a kind of reverse discrimination against very capable white people, denying them and their children a chance to fulfil their potential.

But the question is: Irrespective of all these things, whether having secured a place in a wealthy, successful country like Australia, have we still not lost something of ourselves? Just a little of our emotional bearings? Just a bit of our identity? Just some of our soul?

I take counsel in this from Jane Austen, who says of the country one grew up in: 'One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering.'

Shades of Exodus does not prescribe answers to questions that are raised through migration (immigration for those who find the word easier to chew on). Rather, the book leaves it to migrants to face up to the questions for themselves.

Late in the book we read about a Sudanese man, who, after enjoying the material and security comforts of Australia, goes back to the poverty and immensely rough life of South Sudan where after 20 years of warring, the people have found peace.

With glee, he says: "Of course I want to go back there. That is my home."

My question is, how many others, of any nationality, have the heart to do the same?

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