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Edition 29

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Memoir

Crossings

THE PASSAGE FROM the small island city of Victoria to Vancouver across the Strait of Georgia was a ferry ride of nearly two hours. The British Columbia Ferry was a leviathan of a ship, its carrying capacity impressive. The lower decks were crammed with vehicles: automobiles, trucks and, on the very bottom, semi-trailers and full-size passenger coaches. So many vehicles, each weighing more than a tonne; only the top two decks reserved for human cargo. Yet I trusted it not to sink as I trust an airplane to fly, because movement is essential to life, one of its seven characteristics, and there are only a few days each year when the weather is too stormy for the ferries to make the crossing.

Vancouver loomed in the distance. I had been there briefly in 1958 on my way to Australia and then it was a staggeringly beautiful place, but people had told me it had changed. There’s a part I was warned to avoid; another passenger marked it on the map. But what made me nervous that day was the sense that I was travelling backwards. I was on my way to the US consulate to lodge an application for my American passport, the passport that was taken away from me a quarter of a century before.

 

THE CONSULATE WAS in a building overlooking Vancouver’s harbour. I spent a few minutes at the waterside before I went inside. Years ago, bound from San Francisco for Sydney, I had leaned on the ship’s rail as the Orcades took its stately passage along it. The slopes on either side were serried with firs, dark, dark green down to the rippling teal of the water: a long, elegant finger of the Pacific intruding into the stillness of the land.

I turned and took the lift to the entrance for American citizens. Unlike the visa applicants queued up at the other end of the building, I didn’t wait long. In less than five minutes I was at a window talking to the Canadian officer, a pleasant young dark-haired woman who asked many questions and was forthright in her comments.

‘You have so many names,’ she said.

I smile. A long life.

‘You look so different with your hair down.’

She had my Australian passport, renewed in 1994, and a recent passport photo taken in downtown Victoria. Somehow she didn’t relate the difference to the passage of time, or was too tactful to say.

She laughed. ‘I’ll always wear my hair up now,’ she said.

We went through all the documents: a copy of my birth certificate; a social security card from 1956; the letter dated 14 December 1998 from the US consulate in Sydney, overturning the revocation of my citizenship.

 

IN THE 1990s President Clinton signed an executive order giving retrospectivity to the 1972 Supreme Court decision that American nationals could not have their citizenship withdrawn unless they had willingly renounced it. The circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of mine were blurred in my memory and it was only when I took steps to recover it that pieces of the picture emerged. The loss of nationality is considered no small thing and yet I had been emphatic about it, even smug. When informed in writing that I was about to lose mine, I had hastily replied to the Sydney Consulate condemning the US bombing in Cambodia and suggesting they question President Nixon’s citizenship rather than my own. My mother, on hearing this, was furious; but Australian friends were approving.

Australians are sensitive about Americans. There was that rivalry during World War II, when Aussie men resented the well-paid Yanks who were homing in on ‘their’ women. There were a number of well-known incidents, some apocryphal, about American and Australian soldiers coming to blows. The Battle of Brisbane, a riot that erupted and continued for two days, was real enough; one Australian soldier was killed and several hundred others, Australian and American, military and civilian, were injured. As for the women: to many, the Yanks were there to be milked. My uncle was there then, billeted in Brisbane, a kid of eighteen. He told me when I was leaving for Australia fifteen years later that they didn’t eat vegetables down there; they used them for table decorations.

I understood this but made the choice. Australia was my home. It was where my children were, where my new job was, where my adulthood had occurred. In December 1972 I affirmed my allegiance to the Queen of Australia in a citizenship ceremony in Canberra’s Albert Hall. Only one of my friends accompanied me: a German who had been through the ceremony himself but had not lost his nationality because of it.

 

I FIRST LEARNED of the changes in the US law at an embassy party in Canberra. The process of reclaiming my citizenship seemed inordinately complicated. But in 1998 I was moving with my husband to Canada and, for reasons I hadn’t fully examined, I decided to run the bureaucratic gauntlet and apply for an American passport.

I had no idea what happened to my old one. I imagined it mouldering in an envelope somewhere with other relics of a previous life, tucked away or left behind with a cache of memories. Immigrants always have this previous life. My grandfather never told his children where he came from in Russia: all of it was ugly, and past, and so they stopped asking him and a thread dissolved in the mist. My own children knew practically nothing of my life before Australia. It wasn’t that I wouldn’t discuss it – the moment to do so just never seemed to arrive, and I was so overwhelmed by the task of adjusting to my new country that I never quite knew how to bring one about.

When I’d applied for my US passport in Canberra, I was told by the consular officer, a local by the name of Colin Vincent, the kindliest of men in that gruff Australian fashion, that the only thing that would prevent me from obtaining one was if I had actually renounced my US citizenship all those years ago. I had no conscious memory of doing so. I knew I had written that cheeky letter about Nixon bombing Cambodia and that I had a carbon copy of it somewhere, conceivably with my old, invalid passport. Then, a few weeks later, Colin rang to say that I had renounced my citizenship and, as a consequence, the application had been refused.

Then it came back to me. A small room in downtown Sydney – the most bureaucratic of offices in the stiff, rich, solid style of the period when the state was not the impoverished thing it is today. Polished hardwood and frosted glass windows at the counter. There were windows as well overlooking George Street, but all I remember vividly is the varnished wood, and the grave face of the woman who took my passport. Alma Cohen. A Cohen – one of the priestly class. Did I think of that then? I vaguely recollect repeating my accusations against the President – in any case, she had my letter on her file. Her clothing: green, brown, the latter not dissimilar to the colour of the varnished mahogany. The long nose, over which peered a pair of hooded eyes. A priest she was, and though this was a purely secular matter I could not have felt more sinful.

The truth was that I’d needed a job, and the job I got was with the Australian Government, and I had had to take out Australian citizenship to keep it. I was appalled at the bombing of Cambodia, indeed at all the US Government’s infamous actions in Indochina, but I might have kept quiet had the consulate not been so infuriating. The tone in the consular letter was one of supercilious astonishment, as if no one in full control of her faculties could contemplate ceasing to be American. There was one last chance to repent: to avow in Alma Cohen’s presence that becoming an Australian was the result of a kidnapping, or being drugged or in an otherwise incapacitated state, but when I refused she asked me to hand over my passport. I remember being shaken by this. I’d imagined that the passport would be invalid; it never occurred to me that it would be taken away.

It was only on my second attempt to regain my US citizenship that I was able to persuade the State Department that my renunciation had been under duress and that, accordingly, as the law went, I had never lost my birthright. This was the essence of the letter I received in December 1998, the day I arrived in Canada. It took me over a year to get up the gumption to apply again for a passport.

Breathes there a man with soul so dead, who never to himself hath said, ‘This is my own, my native land!’The words were chanted, and burnt into memory in my Los Angeles primary school. We pledged our allegiance to the national flag. Nation, national. Loose words, these, encircling a host of meanings. We were taught in our history lessons that the evolution of modern European civilisation (what then was deemed civilisation) was essentially the story of nation states. It was later I learned that the path between nations is exceedingly slippery, though you might never notice until you take that first step. Which is what happens when, for whatever reason, you exchange one state for another, or add another on. It is then that questions of nationality or citizenship affect you most forcefully, either in the ethnic or metaphysical sense, when you can no longer easily define yourself; or in tellingly concrete ways, as in what kind of passport you’ll travel on, or which of these states can claim a portion of your income and what the rules are for establishing how much.

 

MY FIRST HUSBAND, who brought me to Australia fifty-one years ago, was born in Mackay but travelled on a British passport, in spite of never having been to Britain. So in his case the term ‘national’ had little to do with his birth, other than that he was born of British stock and on entering the world became a subject of the British king. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Australians began travelling on passports of their own.

This simple detail illustrates in miniature the changing relationship between Australia, an independent state in 1901, and the mother country. After World War II, during which Australia was shocked into realising how little Britain could or would do to defend her, the aim of Australian governments was to encourage immigration in order to make the country more populous and, in keeping with the economic doctrine of the day, more self-reliant. For more than two decades migrants were welcomed. It was comparable proportionately to the great rush of humanity into the United States from the 1880s until that country’s entry into World War I.

In each instance, a push-and-pull affair. On the push side were famine and repression and displacement from war; the pull was the demand for labour to fuel economic expansion.

Perhaps the signal factor distinguishing those earlier times from ours is that labour is no longer free to move across borders in the way that capital can. When I arrived in Sydney in 1958 I became a permanent resident, no questions asked. The status was accorded freely by virtue of my being married to an Australian. I was given an alien card and that was that. Thirty years later, with two weeks to go before my departure to Canada, I suddenly realised it might not be so simple. Canada was a different country, yes; but even in Australia the rules had tightened considerably. I knew this from working on a government review panel where we waged huge and generally fruitless battles trying to reverse Immigration Department decisions. But somehow all this had been shoved to the back of my mind as I struggled to get ready for the move. I rang the Canadian High Commission in Canberra and spoke to a woman who was horrified to learn that I hadn’t applied for landed immigration status earlier. ‘There’s nothing you can do now,’ she snipped. ‘You can try for it after you get there, but it’s going to take a lot longer and it’s going to cost you more.’ I had, inadvertently, become a ‘queue jumper’.

At Vancouver Airport I told the immigration officer all I could. I was coming to join my British-Canadian-Australian husband, who was waiting for me in Victoria. I was sent to another officer, who asked more questions and went through my papers. He gave me a six-month visitor’s visa that could be extended while my residency application was being processed, so long as I didn’t leave Canada. As one of the reasons for my agreeing to migrate was that I would be closer to my 89-year-old father, who was living on his own in Los Angeles, this last stipulation left me utterly stymied.

The following months were a nightmare of bureaucratic procedure, the fundamental aim of which was to prove that I had not married in order to move to Canada. ‘A marriage of convenience? There’s been nothing convenient about it!’ My jokes in this vein elicited the same disapproving response I’d received at the US consulate all those years before. I had to supply photographs not only of the wedding but of the reception, and it was explained that pictures of presents would strengthen our case. This wedding, which took place two and a half years earlier, was the second for both of us, and was attended with as little ceremony as possible. We had no presents to speak of and afterwards went to a local café for champagne with some friends. In any event, I had left what pictures we had behind; my daughter picked out the ones she figured would fit the bill and sent them across so I could attach them to the application.

I’d been a writer for a number of years and could just come up with the required deposition on how my husband and I met, and how our relationship had proceeded; before that I’d been a bureaucrat, but I was barely able to negotiate the minefield of confusing and contradictory questions on the forms. I can’t imagine how it would be for someone without my experience, let alone someone who isn’t fluent in either of Canada’s two official languages.

And changing countries is expensive. A complete account is emotionally beyond me. I can’t bring myself to tot up the sums of what it cost: what I paid to have my fingerprints taken at the Central Saanich Police Station, the fee for the medical examination and the pathology tests, what the various Australian police forces charged for searching for a possible criminal record. All of it put a huge dent in our savings. The application and processing costs alone came to well over a thousand dollars Canadian, and the real shock came when I made a few discoveries about my tax. Although for the immigration authorities I was not yet a Canadian resident, I was already for the Canadian taxman. Likewise for the US Internal Revenue Service, once I got my American passport. I was also resident for tax purposes in Australia, where 95 per cent of my income was still earned. The message was powerful. It would have been a hell of a lot easier had I stayed where I was.

 

CONSIDER, ON THE other hand, the peregrinations of one Benjamin of Tudela. In or around 1169 this Jewish trader from the city of Navarre, in the northern Spanish province of Tudela, left on a trip of an estimated fourteen years. Benjamin’s Sefer ha-Massaot or Book of Travels or Itinerary is said to be the most authoritative account of European and Middle Eastern life in the Middle Ages. In it we find no clear delineation of the purpose of his voyage but the educated guess has been that he was trading in precious stones.

The sweep of his journey was remarkable for the time and would be noteworthy today. From Tudela he travelled south to Saragossa and Tarragona and then to Barcelona; from there he went by way of Gerona into Provence, acquainting himself with the cities of that region. Then he sailed from Marseilles to Genoa and continued by land through Pisa to Rome. It is believed that he spent some time in Rome because of his extensive descriptions of its antiquities.

Benjamin next headed south, to Salerno, Amalfi, Melfi, Benevento, Brindisi and Otranto, where he boarded another vessel that took him to Corfu and Arta and on to the Greek mainland. There he studied the work of Jewish silk weavers and farmers on Mt Parnassus. He went on to Turkey, through the Aegean archipelago to Cyprus and the east coast of the Mediterranean, and then into Palestine. He visited Syria and stayed for a time in Mesopotamia and Persia, before returning by the Indian Ocean to Spain.

Remarkable too was Abraham Ben Yiju, somewhere on the cusp of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. A merchant from Mahdia, in Tunisia, he lived for long stretches in Aden as well as in Egypt and India, and ended his life in Fustat, the old commercial port of Cairo. In the seventeen years that he lived in the Malabar port of Mangalore he became a central figure in what was then a lively trade between North Africa, Arabia and India.

Unlike Tudela, Ben Yiju never wrote a memoir. His story is pieced together by Amitav Ghosh in In an Antique Land (Granta, 1992). Ghosh himself drew on ancient correspondence in the Taylor-Schecter Collection at Cambridge University, the largest repository of medieval documents in the world, where Ben Yiju’s papers are found. Ben Yiju’s letters indicate a fine intelligence and suggest that he possessed ‘a certain warmth and charm’. He was a well-educated man of modest means when he set out from Tunisia on his life journey. When, after his sojourn in Mangalore, he returned to Cairo to die, he was one of the wealthiest members of the Fustat Jewish community.

 

THE STORIES OF Abraham Ben Yiju and Benjamin of Tudela are fascinating in themselves but it wasn’t this that first drew me to them or intrigues me now. What strikes me still is the apparent ease with which these peripatetic men were able to negotiate their extensive, demanding migrations. For here were a couple of traders who took up residence in foreign places for years at a time, and they did this without telephones or email or faxes or airplanes or complicated systems of visas and taxation. They risked meeting up with pirates and brigands but not with the obstructions of bureaucracy. Nor were they the only ones. The Indian Ocean trade of the twelfth century was conducted by many such merchants, brokers and financiers who travelled between and settled within Cochin and the Malabar, in the Port of Aden and Cairo and many other points along the way. And the Indian Ocean traffic itself is but one example of the constant interpenetration of cultures that has characterised just about every period of human sojourn on this earth.

Perhaps we are only just emerging from a dark age of our own, an era that fostered uninformed but deeply held notions of national purity: a tribalism writ large. Passports, as we know them, are in fact a twentieth-century phenomenon, refined to their present state during World War II. As globalisation proceeds and tourism is encouraged in places where manufacture or primary industries have been allowed to dwindle, this rigid identification system has begun to break down, but so far only for some. The waiving of visas in countries like Canada, Australia and the US is for short-term visitors only, not for people who hope to stay. And if in the aftermath of September 11 and our ‘war on terror’ this process has been reversed for tourists, now as then the poor and desperate are meant to stay where they are. That, or risk their lives.

 

YEARS AGO, BEFORE I’d ever dreamed of changing countries again, or undertook to retrieve my American nationality, I became interested in my family’s history. In this I admit I was not alone. Genealogy has become a hugely popular pastime, encouraged it seems by an ageing population with the leisure time in retirement to pursue one of life’s most nagging questions. For many of us ‘Where do I come from?’ is almost as difficult to answer as ‘Where will I be when I die?’ but somehow we feel more sanguine about addressing that second question if we’ve managed to grapple with the first. I left the US for Australia when I was only nineteen, and was as ignorant about my origins as I was about the country I was sailing to. I knew that my mother’s parents came from Russia, my father’s father from Austria-Hungary; to this day I don’t know where my father’s mother’s people came from, though I know that she was born in Chicago.

I had memories, though, and slowly, they drifted to the surface. Recollections of faces, words, music, smells. As I wrote about them they took on new meaning and filled in the blank I had made of my past. But these were only my memories, and the more of them I was able to retrieve, the more incomplete they seemed. And so, like many others, I began to formulate that question ‘Where do I come from?’ Which might be just another way of asking ‘Where do I belong?’ But good questions can never be fully answered, and the best of them raise other questions in turn.

The image that stayed with me was a watery one. Great glaucous swells of ocean, its briny aroma, sweeping tides and, granted, its terror. It was only by this vast marine orchestration that I was able to grasp the enormity of human movement, the movements of my family, and my own. As I gazed from the deck of the BC Ferry on my return voyage from Vancouver across the Strait of Georgia, the scrolling water seemed particularly benign, and absorbed in the sight of it I began to feel all my previous notions about country and allegiance and family dissolve. I began to understand that there has hardly ever been a time when human beings haven’t travelled and resettled.

I’ve come to suspect, in fact, that moving may be as ingrained in us as settling. Bruce Chatwin says as much in Songlines, as does Neil Ascherson in his Black Sea. What’s more, their words seem to suggest there has hardly been a place that hasn’t taken in outsiders, whether through marriage, invasion, or the blandishments of learning or trade. What made the wanderings of Abraham Ben Yiju and Tudela’s Benjamin possible, apart from a lust for the goods that India had to offer, her spices and gems? What does it mean to ‘belong’ to one nation or another? Is this really possible, or even – in truth – desirable? Has it ever been? 


From Griffith Review Edition 29: Prosper or Perish © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review