Henna House

Scribner  2014

 

Nomi Eve, prizewinning author of The Family Orchard, has woven a magical and fascinating story, set in an obscure corner of history, unfamiliar to almost everyone. Adela Damari lives in a tiny village in the mountains of Yemen. The Yemenite community that surĀ­rounds her follows ancient Jewish traditions and dress. Adela herself wears a gargush, a silver crown-like headpiece trimmed with coins. She lives in a complex with her sour mother, loving but sick father, and a tribe of brothers, sisters-in-law, and their many children.

Adela, and most young children in her small town, live in deadly fear of the Confiscator, a Muslim official who has the legal right to seize orphaned Jewish children and give them up for adoption to Muslim families, where they will have to convert and forget their former lives. To prevent this, many Jews engage their seven and eight-year-olds to avoid their being kidnapped. Adela, luckily, is engaged to her cousin Assaf who has appeared with his elderly father in their small town. They are traders who travel the ancient spice route.

An integral part of the Yemenite women’s culture is the practice of henna: drawing elaborate paintings on each other at parties. Adela’s mother forbids her to attend these parties until the arrival of another uncle, aunt, and cousin, Hani. Aunt Rahel is an expert henna artist and finally Adela is allowed to join this almost mysterious custom of women. She shows an affinity for the art, and through learning henna designs, learns how to read and write.

Sadly, Assaf and his father depart again on their journeys. Adela’s mother cancels the engagement and Adela again quakes at the thought of the imminent appearance of the Confiscator, since both her parents die soon, only months apart from each other. Adela’s warm family circle keeps her from harm and after extended droughts in the village the family tribe departs secretly for Aden where they live well and happily. Thrust into the modern world for the first time, Adela sees automobiles, street lights and multi-colored people for the first time. The family women all adhere to the wearing of henna designs and Adela waits by the port every day trying to seek out her beloved Assaf.

His return brings tragedy and catastrophe interwoven with the henna designs. Pogroms make Aden less and less welcoming to the Jews and in 1947 on “The Wings of Eagles” Israel airlifts the Yemenite community to Israel, where finally, Adela finds her peace and happiness.

Henna House not only tells a compelling story about characters the reader cares about, but also illuminates a time and way of life unknown to most.

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