Reading Group Guide

(Published with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)



Adela Damari’s parents desperately seek a husband for their young daughter to protect her from the Orphans’ Decree, which mandates that a Muslim family adopt any unbetrothed Jewish orphan. 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.


Discussion Questions:

1. An epigraph from the Song of Songs opens the book. Read the entire passage in context ( 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). 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 does its writer shape a story? 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 Discussion:

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 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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