A War Without Chocolate - One woman’s journey through two nations, three wars and four children
Betty Dagher Majaj
First Printing, 2015. ISBN 978-1507545577
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Reviewed by Stephen Need, editor of Bible Lands
Betty Dagher Majaj is a member of the congregation at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and this book is the story of her extraordinary life. A lively and engaging account of the events she and her family lived through during the twentieth century, it shows how they survived the upheaval, challenge and trauma of several wars. The book covers Betty’s early life in Lebanon and then the many years she has spent living in Jerusalem. Her accrued wisdom and faith shine through on every page. It’s well worth reading.
Betty Dagher was born in 1926 near Beirut and the opening parts of the book cover her early life and the happy times she spent with her family there. From an early age she felt committed to helping people and later trained as a nurse at the American University of Beirut. Her future husband, Amin Majaj (a well-known doctor and skilled violinist) came from Jerusalem and after their marriage in Beirut in 1947 they went to live there with his family. Betty tells of the challenges she faced as she left home and travelled south to completely new circumstances. Then the war of 1948 broke out and Jerusalem was divided. Betty relates some of the problems and difficulties faced by the local communities.
A substantial part of the book concerns Amin’s significant career in the medical profession. He rose to international fame and was highly respected around the world. As a paediatrician, he visited many countries contributing to international conferences and gaining wide respect. He worked in a small hospital in Bethany but was later Medical Director of the children’s ward at the Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. He was also politically involved as a member of the Jordanian parliament and acting Mayor of East Jerusalem. He received many awards including being made a Lay Canon at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem.
Betty’s account of her experiences during the Six Day War in 1967 is particularly moving. The family survived the ordeal and came through a series of events that changed the feel of the city as well as of their own lives. This war, though short-lived, was a crisis for the Palestinians. Betty writes of getting supplies beforehand and comments that, ‘a war without chocolate would be unbearable’ (p.167). Then there was the war in Lebanon in the 1980s which brought similar horrors to Betty’s family there.
Following the sad death of their first child, Betty and Amin eventually had four other children who all contribute memories of their father at the end of the book.
One of the chapters, of course, covers Betty’s time as Director of the Jerusalem Princess Basma Centre for Disabled Children on the Mount of Olives. This had begun in the 1960s and in 1983 (because she was so well known and respected) Betty was invited to become leader. With her skills and experience as a nurse and her commitment and dedication, she led the Centre until she retired in 2012. The Princess Basma Centre and Betty Majaj became synonymous during those years and she turned the institution around to become what it is today. Her years of hard work and fundraising certainly paid off and make fascinating reading.
Anyone interested in the Middle East and especially in the history of Jerusalem in the last century will find this book gripping. Its great strength is the personal aspect: far from being an objective history, it is written by someone who herself lived through all the events described. And Betty’s faith in God has clearly been strengthened over the years by even the toughest experiences.
Reviewed in Bible Lands, Winter 2017