Henna House: A Novel

Henna House: A Novel

by Nomi Eve


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“A touching coming-of-age story” (Publishers Weekly) in the tradition of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, about a young woman, her family, their community and the customs that bind them, from “a storyteller of uncommon energy and poise” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times).

This vivid saga begins in Yemen in 1920. Adela Damari’s parents’ health is failing as they desperately seek a future husband for their young daughter, who is in danger of becoming adopted by the local Muslim community if she is orphaned. With no likely marriage prospects, Adela’s situation looks dire—until she meets two cousins from faraway cities: a boy with whom she shares her most treasured secret, and a girl who introduces her to the powerful rituals of henna. Ultimately, Adela’s life journey brings her old and new loves, her true calling, and a new life as she is transported to Israel as part of Operation On Wings of Eagles.

Rich, evocative, and enthralling, Henna House is an intimate family portrait interwoven with the traditions of the Yemenite Jews and the history of the Holocaust and Israel. This sensuous tale of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness—and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart—will captivate readers until the very last page.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476740287
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 08/04/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 581,379
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Nomi Eve is the author of The Family Orchard, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University and has worked as a freelance book reviewer for The Village Voice and New York Newsday. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Voice Literary Supplement, Conjunctions, and The International Quarterly. She is currently a lecturer in the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College and lives in Philadelphia with her family.

Read an Excerpt

Henna House
I loved Asaf before I loved Hani. I think of him looking out at me from deep within his cold armor. His eyes beseech me. Rescue me, they say. Melt my prison, breathe on my fate, and release me with the heat of your forgiveness.

Auntie Aminah used to say that there were people who died as they lived, and others who did “quite the opposite.” She was referring to the lazy woman who died dancing, or the man with the energy of fire who lay on his deathbed like a snuffed-out ember. According to my aunt, such mismatched deaths left an imbalance for the angels to tinker with in the World to Come. Asaf’s death was like that. He was a boy on a thundering horse, a child of the hot northern dunes—yet he died a cold, still death, trapped like a bug in frozen amber. But Hani died as she lived, inscribed with henna. Her killer took a knife and used it to trace her intricate henna tattoos, carving through the skin on the soles of her feet, her shins, her palms, the backs of her hands, her forearms; slicing her into an elaborate, bloody decoration. She was tied up and left that way and must have bled to death. If such barbarity had happened in Qaraah, or in Sana’a or in Aden, we would have assumed that it was the family of one of the brides. When a marriage went wrong, or a first baby was born dead, the henna dyer was often blamed, as if the henna dyer’s art were more than art, as if it could really ward off or conjure evil. When I learned of Asaf’s and Hani’s deaths, I held my hands up to my face. I hadn’t worn henna for many years, but the old markings seemed to appear on my skin—my own ghostly lacery. The henna elements on my palms became letters, the letters spelled their names. And there it was. Their stories inscribed on my skin, their smiles and sorrows my own tattoos.

Now I spend my days surrounded by my children and grandchildren. In their laughter, I discern codes and secrets. Sometimes I decipher what I hear. Sometimes, I am stumped. Life itself has become a puzzle to be translated, a curse or a blessing written in the language of henna.

*  *  *

It was my husband who suggested that I write this story. He said, “This story will submit to you, and to you alone.” His words made me wonder: Do stories submit to authors? Or do authors submit to the tales that tangle up their guts? I confessed to him that if I were to write about Hani and Asaf, I would have to write a love story, “For I never stopped loving them,” I said shamefacedly to the man who had rescued me from their manifold betrayals.

He wasn’t cowed. “Love them,” my husband urged, “write them, and write yourself.”

I tried to begin, but my story came out in a voice I didn’t recognize. I tried again, and I failed again because my chapters were all told from a faulty perspective. Then I failed a third time. I finally realized that I was going about it all wrong. I didn’t need characters but ingredients. I didn’t need settings or scenes, I needed age-old herbal recipes passed down from mother to daughter, aunt to niece. I didn’t need plot or point of view, but symbols so old they were once swirling in the dust of creation. I didn’t need pen or paper, I needed stylus and skin. I am a woman of henna so I needed to rely upon the traditions and tools of my craft.

I began yet again, but writing in henna presented its own challenges. You see, the master henna dyers in my family always started elaborate applications in different places. Aunt Rahel always began with the palm of her subject’s right hand because of the psalm: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, then let my right hand forget its cunning.” She liked to say that henna was prayer in color, and prayer was henna in words. My cousin Nogema favored the tips of the fingers. My cousin Edna always started by inscribing elaborate elements on the tops of her subjects’ feet, because her designs depended most of all on symmetry and balance. And my cousin Hani, whose story I had set out to tell? She never began in the same place. She was the first to admit that her haphazard approach wasn’t scientific and sometimes resulted in aesthetic disasters. But more often than not, Hani’s designs were the most beautiful of all. When I was well practiced in the henna craft, I preferred to start with the underside of the forearm. My subject would stand before me with her arm raised, her hand on my shoulder. That way I could decorate the bottom of her bicep without smearing the top of the arm.

So you see, we all had our own tricks; the only thing you could say about all of our techniques is that in the end, the first line blended into the last like blood running through veins.

As for my story? Where should I begin? Should I ask my reader to extend an open palm so that I can inscribe my words in the warm gully of a branching life line, and our fates may mingle? Or should I ask her to recline on jasmine-scented pillows and let me begin with the tender soles of the feet, so that my story accompanies her wherever she goes, pressed into the earth, like footprints for posterity? Or should I demand my reader reveal her bosom, so that I may write these words upon her heart?

I have done a great deal of thinking about this matter. About where to begin a story that ends with blood and sacrifice. At last I have come to believe that my story begins on the day the Confiscator came to my father’s shop for the first time. This man, the monster of my childhood, the ghost who haunts my dreams, casts the same shadow as all the other predators who have hounded my people since the dawn of time. Different men, they are all descendants of the same ancient darkness.

*  *  *

I was just five years old when the Confiscator came. We lived in Qaraah, a day’s ride from the ancient city of Sana’a in the Kingdom of North Yemen. The year was 1923. Yes, this is where my story must begin. Many years have passed since I last sharpened my stylus, but I feel the old elements ready at my fingertips. Palm, soul, heart. If my hand is steady, the last line will blend into the first, and ends will embrace beginnings.

What was it that Aunt Rahel used to say to the girls and women whose limbs she would adorn with intricate and beautiful henna designs that marked the skin and pierced the heart? Whether they were there for a henna of solace or a henna of celebration, she treated them all with the utmost tenderness. She would beg them to relax, whisper soothing secrets in their ears, and comfort them with a blessing, a calming word. And then she would begin to draw . . .

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Henna House includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Adela Damari’s parents desperately seek a husband for their young daughter to protect her from the Orphans’ Decree, which mandates that any unbetrothed Jewish orphan be adopted by a Muslim family. With her father’s health failing and no marriage prospects in sight, Adela’s situation looks dire until two cousins enter her life: Asaf, to whom she quickly becomes promised, and Hani, who introduces Adela to the mysterious and powerful ritual of henna. Suddenly, Adela’s eyes are opened to the world: she begins to understand what it means to love. But when her parents die and a drought threatens their city, Adela and her extended family flee to Aden, where Adela falls in love, discovers her true calling, and is ultimately betrayed by the people and traditions closest to her.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. An epigraph from the Song of Songs opens the book. Read the entire passage in context (http://biblehub.com/niv/songs/1.htm). How is it an appropriate opening to the novel?

2. The characters in this story are Jews who live, for most of the book, in a predominantly Muslim area. How does this affect their lives both practically and in the ways they think about themselves and their role in society? What do you make of the ways both cultures borrow from each other’s rituals? Are these groups as separate as they seem to be?

3. In the early part of the story, young Adela is said to be cursed because every groom her parents line up for her passes away. When, if ever, is she freed from this curse?

4. “You must act the part,” the dye mistress tells Adela before her scheduled wedding to Mr. Musa. “I often take no joy in my spinsterhood; I have no babes to fill my arms, and yet by acting the part of it, I convince myself that I am not lonely. And sometimes it works” (pp. 107–8). Do you believe that you can make yourself happy by acting the part? Do you think Adela believes it?

5. What really happened to Mr. Musa? Did Hani have anything to do with his death? Does Adela believe so?

6. Henna serves many roles: a wedding ritual, a charm, and a way for women to bond with one another. Discuss what happens in the henna house when the women adorn one another and how it changes Adela’s relationships with them once she is allowed to join in. Why do you think her mother wanted to keep her away for so long?

7. In many places in the story—the death of Hani’s twin sisters (p. 112), Asaf’s return (p. 245), and the discovery of Hani and Asaf’s affair (p. 269)—there is no definitive recounting of what actually happened, only a series of alternate versions of events. Does this make them seem more or less true? Should the reader question the events presented throughout the rest of the novel?

8. When Adela journeys from Qaraah to Aden, she is confronted for the first time with modernity, and in the end, her life butts up against the well-known historical events of World War II. How does this juxtaposition enhance the story? Does it feel jarring? Think about the parts of the culture and traditions of the old way of life Adela leaves behind as she moves on, and what she takes with her. How do these changes mirror those that are happening in Adela’s perception of her place in the world?

9. Consider the role of books and writing in this story, from Uncle Zecharia’s Torah to Hani’s henna book to the lessons Adela gives the Habbani women on the road to Aden. In what ways is Adela’s life transformed when she learns to read and write? How is the written word viewed as its own sort of magic in this story?

10. At times, there is a great tension between Elohim, the traditional Jewish deity, and other gods and personal beliefs. Think about Adela’s childhood idols and the Muslim beads Jewish women put on their children for protection (p. 94). And when Binyamin is confronted by Adela’s brother about not going to synagogue, Adela admits that she doesn’t mind, as she and Binyamin both believe that Elohim is everywhere (pp. 239–40). How does this tension express itself in the things characters believe throughout the story, and in what ways does it reflect their development? Is the tension between organized religion and personal belief ultimately resolved?

11. “Do stories submit to authors?” Adela asks. “Or do authors submit to the tales that tangle up their guts?” (p. 2) Which do you believe is true? In what ways is a story shaped by its writer? Consider the many tales and stories told throughout this book, and especially the fact that the entire narrative is presented as Adela’s story, written—figuratively if not literally—in henna (p. 2). How much do we shape the stories of our lives, and how much are we shaped by them?

12. Adela and her family are refugees in Israel in the last part of the story, and the situation Adela describes in the refugee camp, rife with disease and deplorable living conditions, is terrible. Were you aware of Operation On Wings of Eagles and the repatriation of Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia before reading the book? Do you know of similar situations today?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The historical note at the end of the book lists several resources the author used in her research about the lives of Yemeni Jews, including The Jews of the British Crown Colony of Aden, A Winter in Arabia, and The Jews of Yemen. Pick one of these books and read it, and then discuss the ways Henna House veered from history and how it was faithful to actual events. Alternatively, find a copy of The Magic Carpet, which tells more about Operation On Wings of Eagles, and discuss the importance of this true but little-known piece of history.

2. The beauty and artistry of henna is lavishly described in this story. To see pictures of henna application and to learn more about the history and modern applications of henna, visit the Web site www.hennabysienna.com and its accompanying blog, A Research Blog About the History, Culture, and Religious Significance of Henna. Discuss the techniques and rituals you read about in light of the story.

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