Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Book Review: Nomi Eve's "Henna House"

A few years ago, I got an email from a woman who was interested in Yemenite Jewish henna traditions. We corresponded for some time but after our last email I forgot about the encounter… Until a friend sent me a link to a new book coming out about a family of Jewish henna artists in Yemen, and I was thrilled to see that my old correspondent had in fact finished her book! I finally received a copy and read it through, and I’m delighted to be able to share my thoughts here.

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).

I also liked the description of Adela’s eventual marriage in Israel: “I wore no towering tishbuk lulu on my head, no henna on my hands. I wore a regular Western dress and a little doily of a veil in my hair. This is because we refugees tried to become real Israelis… [We] walked the freshly paved sidewalks of Israel wearing nothing but slacks and blouses, our hands and feet as blank as the yet unwritten future” (pg. 289).

A Habbani Jewish couple, shortly after their
 'aliya to Israel, mid-1950s.

This is unfortunately an accurate truth — during the early years of the State of Israel, henna was rarely practiced (like other Diaspora traditions) as immigrants struggled external and internal pressure to assimilate into an Ashkenazi-centric Israeliness.

What I loved most about the book was how it used henna as a metaphor for the very process of storytelling itself. Adela begins by asking where she could start her story (pp. 2-3):
“You see, the master henna dyers in my family always started elaborate applications in different places. Auntie Rahel always began with the palm of her subject’s right hand because of the psalm: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” She liked to say that henna was prayer in colour, and prayer was henna in words. My cousin Nogema favoured the tips of the fingers. My cousin Edna always began by inscribing elaborate elements on the tops of her subject’s 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… 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?”

I love this! And I am totally going to begin with the right palm now — it’s a great example of how Jewish meaning can be invested into the structure of henna rituals. Elsewhere, in a beautiful passage, Adela compares her hennaed body to a Torah scroll, “a living girl-scroll replete with tales of sorrow, joy, and salvation” (pg. 126). The novel constantly plays with the distinctions between body and text, story and life, male and female, permanent and fading. Henna is a multifaceted symbol, not always positive, a constantly-shifting presence in Adela's life.

A Jewish bride with the dresser/ henna artist,
known as a shar'e, Yemen, circa 1930.
Photo by Yehiel Haibi.
Another part which I found moving was Rahel’s description of what it means to be a henna artist (pg. 137): 
“‘What do you think? That a henna dyer is a confessor? A friend? A confidant? No, the henna dyer is engaged to offer a service. Not to fawn over or flatter the girls who wear the bridal gargush. And anyway, a good henna dyer must maintain a sense of distance from her subject, otherwise—’ 
‘Otherwise what?’ 
‘She risks absorbing their sadness, their sacrifices. That’s where the danger lies. For the sadness of a bride is more permanent a dye than henna. And no woman could stand to saturate herself with all the emotions of so many brides. A lifetime of brides would stain a soul.” 

While (hopefully) most of us deal with bridal clients who are happy to be married, I think this speaks to the intimacy and vulnerability of the henna connection, and how we as henna artists are constantly exposed to the energies and emotions, positive and negative, of the people we work with.

There were a few parts about henna that made me raise an eyebrow. The book takes some artistic liberties with the designs, with fanciful names like “Eye of God” — but hey, this is a novel, not a history textbook! I was a little skeptical of the description of Hani’s henna notebook; as far as I know, henna designs were never recorded, and it is especially unlikely that a Temani woman to have one which included “paisleys — mango, the Buddha’s fruit… Chinese lotus leaves for fertility, Turkish carnations for luck. Even New Zealand Maori designs” (pg. 119). This is thematically well-incorporated into the novel but it stood out as particularly unlikely historically.

A Muslim woman with hennaed hands, Hadramaut, late 1930s.

It is also improbable that a Jewish henna artist in Yemen would have been invited to prepare a Muslim bride (unlike in North Africa, where Jewish and Muslim artists did work interchangeably) and even if she did, I am fairly certain that the wax resist technique would not have been done for a Muslim client. And several times, henna is described as being set with a coating of lemon sugar water (e.g. pg. 118 or 131) — this is a modern custom from the Indian/Pakistani community, and would not have been practiced in Yemen. These things stuck out to me as inconsistent with the generally-accurate historical backdrop of Yemenite Jewish life.

These are fairly minor concerns; overall, the book is an enjoyable read and I think henna artists will find it especially rich. This is, to my knowledge, the first novel that really has henna (Jewish or not) front and centre in this way, and it is wonderful to see a respectful depiction of this profession which has brought so many of us joy and community.

Henna House is a captivating story and creates a vivid picture of Jewish life in 20th century Yemen. It is a moving demonstration of how henna can be a powerful and ultimately ambiguous symbol. If you’re interested in henna, Temani Jews, or both, I would recommend this book. It can be purchased online here, or at any major bookstore. And I hear the author is doing a tour, so look out — she might be coming to a book group near you!

Jewish children in school, Yemen, early 20th century.


ginagruenberg said...

wonderful review Noam. Have you heard Nomi's talk yet?
where can I read more about the wax resist technique?
Do you use it?

Noam Sienna said...

Hi Gina,

I describe the wax technique more here:
I've tried to reconstruct the technique with other materials but I have not yet tried it with wax.