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Personal Journey - Reminiscence Of A Fateful 1988

I remember our family's arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the excitement and the hope, and the odd feeling while we went directly into the office of the Interior Ministry, located at the airport. We were to receive our identity documents. A quaint notion, coming as we did from a country that did not require one to carry identity documents, but suddenly we were confronted by having to choose names in Hebrew, which foreshadowed our new, nascent identities. My name, Michael Cohn, is phonetically pronounced "my-kil kon" in English, but the Hebrew equivalent is "mee-ka-el core-hen", and so I became "mee-ka-el" from then on, an imposed and strange-sounding appellation which never really assumed its essential vocative characteristics.

This strange-sounding series of phonemes, "mee-ka-el", presaged my new identity and was an augury of how I would grow to experience the loss of my old identity.

But identity is not merely one's name. It is the sum total of who one is, from whom one has evolved, one's roots, one's country, one's friends, one's family, one's school, one's whole world as embodied by one's unitary past. These notions have been eloquently written about in many books - Edward Said - The Paradox of Identity, and Out of Place, both of which deal with the dislocation of migration and its effects. Merely flipping through the index section of another touching book, Lost in Translation one notes just 3 sections - Paradise, Exile and The New World. The Exile section brings home the pain, alienation and wrenching which accompanies relocating to another country with different norms and social conventions, ideas and values. The very title of Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss, is further writing on this theme - a reflection on relocating, with attendant notions of exile, identity, language and loss. So, too, writings on: "Where do you get your Personality? and "What does it mean to be a Person? Are replete with these themes. Finally, in a wonderful article titled "Understanding Ourselves" one of the paragraphs is headed: "How do I Relate to the Society in which I Live and Work". The bulk of the article deals with one's self-construct and this is so very relevant in terms of making sense of the world.

One is soon typecast as an immigrant, marked by one's strange behaviour and odd accent, - someone who is assigned a particular social standing and someone who is stereotyped. This is like a wound, needing to be dealt with, with the very differences making people feel rejected. Every day brought new challenges to meet - different driving habits (reckless and dangerous in my then world-view), a strange diet, different banking rules (which made little sense to me - and some credit cards were unknown to my bank manager), finding a doctor, a dentist, schools for my children and so on.

I had to learn a new language. The import of that was that for the first year or so, I could not look up a telephone directory, could not understand the newspapers or television, could not understand parent-teachers meetings, could not ask for specific products in the supermarket, etc., and as I struggled to make myself understood, I became aware of how I was becoming a non-person. People did not have patience to struggle with this odd fellow who was obviously stupid simply because he was not articulate.

Suddenly I realised how infantilised I felt, reliant as I was on others to help me with otherwise mundane daily living.

Social intercourse was difficult - how does one repartee with no language, or indeed, repartee in a newly- learned language? How could I practise law, despite having requalified and having been admitted to the Israeli Bar Association, when I struggled to understand the judges I appeared before, let alone finding the correct words with which to represent my clients?

This being, who once was Michael Cohn, B.Com, LL.B., advocate of the Supreme Court of South Africa, Advocate of the High Court of Lesotho, a former director of a group of companies employing some 1000 people, had become this mute immigrant lawyer. Not only could I not speak sufficiently well to earn a living as a lawyer, but I was so far removed from the norms and cultural values of my new society that I had scant chance of assessing motives, reading people and feeling my way?

How does one bring up children in a society where nobody queues, where pushing in is the norm - where these norms clash so viscerally with the norms of one's country or society of birth. Paradoxically, the only thing which makes initial sense is to tenaciously cling to the deeply held values of one's prior societal norms? I remember visiting a water-park with my children. We paid what we considered a huge amount of money as an entry fee, and delighted, my children then queued up, waiting for their turn to slide down the chute. They never got a chance. As was the norm then, all the Israeli kids jumped the queue, or climbed over the queue fences, while I insisted to my children that 'we will do things properly - we do not jump queues'.
If this is quaint to the reader (and existentially not very significant), I would ask the more existentially essential question: 'How would you teach your own children to behave in areas more important than mere sliding down a water slide". Think of what norms hold sway in a society like Israel which has had an influx of immigrants from Europe, from the Arab Countries, from North America, from South America. These immigrants arrived in such a short space of time and in such huge numbers relative to the existing population that there was never really enough time for any 'one' set of norms to take hold.
Imagine a Jew from Yemen or Morocco mixing with a Jew from Canada, or a Jew from Ethiopia mixing with a Jew from Argentina. What norms apply? Does one push and shove? What norms hold sway in a society where survival is all that counts. What norms does one inculcate into one's children now living in a society made up of so many immigrants where perhaps school or university places are limited. What is the general attitude to 'cheating'? Is there a general attitude in this regard? Is there perhaps a subliminal expectation that cheating does occur? This notion is so outrageous that when I have mentioned this in discussions, people tend to understand it as an exaggeration, or, worse - a personal indictment of my own moral values. In terms of my white middle class South African values as I knew them, and in terms of Australian values as I have come to understand them, the notion of cheating is abhorrent, and it is so distasteful that people here cannot accommodate it into any possibility of their own world view and therefore cannot imagine it to exist as a societal norm anywhere. How could they begin to imagine a society in which survival is the overriding factor to everything - you survive, achieve, succeed, accomplish, by whatever means it takes, including - whatever.

Completing this cameo of the theatre of the absurd, imagine if you will, the notion that as an immigrant to the opposite hemisphere of the earth, even the sun's precession in the sky during the day lacked the familiar relational position - it seemed to traverse the wrong way. Even that certainty is lost to an immigrant as he begins to reinvent his identity of being-ness in the world.

This true impact of this concept, of being so displaced, so uncertain, is extremely difficult to convey to anyone who has not lived it. Words convey literal meaning, but the meta-meaning, the deep implications, remain a vicarious shadow to the voyeur reader/observer, unless he/she has 'been there'.

Israel truly made me feel I was in the theatre of the absurd.

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