by Haniffah Abdul Gafoor (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 21, Shawwal, 1423)
From Beirut To Jerusalem by Dr Ang Swee Chai (new edition). Pub: The Other Press, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2002 (www.ibtbooks.com). Pp: 330 plus photos. Pbk: $12.00.
Most of us are fortunate to have a relatively comfortable and safe life with peace and security. When blessed with these comforts, how many are moved to soil our hands by a commitment to goodness, and exert ourselves to help the needy, especially when it requires no small amount of sacrifice on our part? From Beirut to Jerusalem by Dr Ang Swee Chai is a record of the experiences and observations of one who has taken that leap.
Dr Chai was born in Penang, Malaysia, educated in Singapore, and qualified in the United Kingdom. She had to overcome challenges and prejudices as an Asian woman encroaching on a man’s domain (orthopaedic surgery) in the Western world. She was later moved by her commitment to humanity to serve the persecuted Palestinian refugees in Beirut. Reading this book leaves the ‘neutral’ reader in despair at the atrocities that we allow in this world, and in admiration of the sacrifice and efforts of some of our fellow human beings. In one work, both the extremes of good and evil of mankind are exposed to the reader.
This book of 310 pages is written in a free-flowing style, simple yet lucid, and is an effortless read (if one can discount the emotional distress it causes). It describes in chronological order the author’s record and witness of human suffering, warm ties, senseless murders and the endeavours of many to alleviate the pain of this predicament. The book begins with a brief background to Dr Ang’s family, and the manner in which she was nurtured. This allows a better appreciation of the author’s calling in life and involvement in the Palestinians’ plight. There is a refreshing lack of self-glorification; on the contrary, candid confessions of shortcomings are shared.
The turning-point that initiated the author’s involvement was the broadcast on British television, during the author’s residence there, of the relentless bombing of Beirut by Israeli war planes. This was followed by the Israeli blockade of Beirut, denying the living and wounded food, water, electricity and medical care. The author then responded to an international appeal for an orthopaedic surgeon to treat war victims in Beirut. Thus began an eventful journey and sacrifice for a cause that would lead to a life-long commitment, with results such as the founding of Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Star of Jerusalem award.
The author professes her faith in Christianity, her initial support of the Israeli cause and her perception of Palestinians as ‘terrorists’. In the course of her work in Beirut with the Palestinian immigrants, and her continued commitment as a Christian, she speaks of her "outrage that I had to discover the truth about a brave and generous people only through their deaths." She substantiates this with anecdotes of her interaction with residents of the refugee-camps, the most chilling of which is her eyewitness account of the massacre of defenceless children, women, the aged and infirm after their men had been deported in a ‘brokered ceasefire’. She writes of her affection for the innocent Israeli children she passes when entering Israel to give evidence regarding the Sabra and Shatila massacre and her prayer "that they would not be punished for the misery and sufferings wrought by their parents and elders to other children."
Dr Ang is philosophical about the prevailing Middle East stand-off, recollecting the Nazi persecution of Jews and now ‘our’ persecution of the Palestinians, when she writes, "...perhaps there is an evil being trying to play musical chairs or pass the parcel [of land-snatching, persecution and death] making the Jews, then the Palestinians, suffer in turn."
Dr Ang describes her many stints of service in Beirut from 1982 to 1988 and the state of destruction that Beirut was in when she first arrived there. The sorry state of the Gaza Hospital and medical facilities was apparently compensated for by human commitment, hard work and enterprise. For example, the lack of regular water and electricity was dealt with by prudent rationing and planning. The account of hospital staff, doctors included, taking turns to pump manually for 21 hours each day, for up to a week in total, the respiratory bag of a paralysed patient requiring mechanical ventilation, best exemplifies the situation. The author’s narration of her added vocation as a despatch-cum-ambulance-driver offers an insight into the varied skills required and developed in such challenging circumstances.
The author describes her interaction with her colleagues and her growing affection for the Palestinian immigrants, living in a physical environment of slums but yet maintaining their human dignity and compassion for other humans, even of another race. There are many little anecdotes of heart-warming human interaction contained in this book. The account of Palestinian immigrants who were strangers to her but who warmly greet her return to the Beirut camps some years later is an example. The description of widows and orphans who lost their relatives to senseless killing is shared. A raw description of this is that of a lady whose family had contributed ‘x’ limbs and ‘x’ lives between them.
The author’s presence in Beirut during the Sabra and Shatila massacre is a first-hand description of the now infamous event. In three days in September 1982, after their men had surrendered their weapons and been deported from Beirut, more than 2,000 defenceless Palestinian women and children were rounded up and systematically murdered in cold blood. Dr Ang puts forward her rationale and evidence of who the murderers were.
Dr Ang realised that she had been fighting to save a few lives with hours of medical care and surgery, only for these patients to be sent out into the streets to be murdered. She writes that she was not among the many nurses, doctors and Palestinians murdered during the massacre because she was Chinese and not Palestinian, and to have survived meant that she had a duty to speak for those who were massacred and for "those alive and suffering every mortal day without a voice."
In such adversity, injustice and suffering, some goodness often shines through. Dr Ang’s account of the generous response of the British public to her appeals for donations and help, which not only helped the suffering Palestinians in Beirut but brought Dr Ang closer to the people of her adopted home (Britain), the very "white men" whom she felt had prejudicial views of her ambition as an aspiring Chinese orthopaedic surgeon-to-be.
Reading this book is an exercise in humility, empathy for the less fortunate, self-appraisal and a lesson in humanity that should not be missed. Who knows, some of us may be embarrassed enough to be moved to act, or at least reappraise our contribution towards distressed people (whoever and wherever they may be), however small that contribution may be.