|Reading Henna House, with henna, |
of course! (My henna by Darcy Vasudev).
Henna House begins in Yemen in the early 1920s, and by the end has taken us to the early State of Israel in the 1970s. It follows Adela Damari, a Temani girl whose life is changed when she meets relatives of hers who are henna artists. It is a story, as the back cover describes, “of love, loss, betrayal, forgiveness, and the dyes that adorn the skin and pierce the heart.”
The book is well-researched, and peppered throughout with references to significant items, events, and traditions of Yemenite (or Temani) Jewry. The gargush [Temani headdress] and jahnun [savoury pastry], the Jewish refugees in Aden and the confiscation of Jewish orphans, the lulwi dress for burial and the martial arts of Habbani Jews, all make appearances.
And of course, the henna! Henna is the central motif of the book and is a constant thread from beginning to end. Jewish henna traditions get such little press, and I’m so thrilled to have this wonderful novel devoted to them. I’m not thrilled with the occasional appearance of the word ‘tattoo’ to describe henna designs, especially in a Jewish context, but this is more of an editorial quibble than a deep criticism.
Henna House does an excellent job of describing the complex process of the wax-resist technique used by Yemenite Jews, where the designs are drawn not in henna but in hot wax over the background of lightly-hennaed skin. It also includes lots of tidbits about the way that henna was integrated into Jewish life; for example, how unmarried Jewish girls were generally discouraged from wearing patterned henna (pg. 73).