Jews and Muslims lived together in peace but perhaps not total harmony, since there were disagreements between them for which the Muslims always had the upper hand. They lived by their rules and owed their lives to their good graces. Orphaned Jewish children were taken into the Muslim community, by the Confiscator. Relatives had to prove they were financially able to care for the orphan, and most of the time they were too poor to satisfy the regulations. The cloud of confiscation hung over Adela Damari because her father, a fine shoemaker, was in very poor health. If her father died, she could be spirited away from her world, by the Confiscator, and forced to live and work in his.
We traveled with Adela from Quaraah to Aden and finally on to Palestine and then Israel, meeting members of her family along the way. When she was nine, and her cousin Asaf was only a year or so older, they were pledged to each other, to prevent her confiscation. Both of them seemed older than their young years. Hani, Adela’s friend and cousin, also appeared too wise for her age, and all three of them seemed too promiscuous for the times. Binyamin, another friend of Adela’s, seemed quieter and more reserved. Except for Adela’s mom, Sulamita, most of the women seemed relaxed and gay, more open minded, in some ways, even in their remarks. She on the other hand was strict and rigid, often cruel in her punishments. Adela, therefore, relied on several of her aunts for warmth and understanding. My favorite character was Binyamin who remained true to himself throughout and my least was Asaf who was more of a chameleon, fitting himself into the moment.
The Yemeni Jews seemed to live in the past, in a time warp, with their traditions, their religion and their superstitions. Many were illiterate. Girls, especially, received no education. Some Jews who succeeded were portrayed as ruthless and/or deceptive and devious. Others were depicted as kind, simple folk. The Muslims were portrayed largely as brutal and barbaric, killing and maiming simply for the sake of revenge, just and unjust. The Jews suffered many hardships but seemed to find joy in simple pleasures like Henna painting, cloth dyeing and preparing meals. The men, also, took pride in the work they performed to support their families. Eventually, though, world events forced many to leave their homes and travel to distant places.
Sometimes, the book seemed too simplistic and/or contrived. I found the scenes depicting little children consumed with ideas of sex, inappropriate and most unrealistic. Their world was a backward one, so I had trouble conceiving of their secret meetings or of their physical desire developing as it did. I also did not think it was necessary for the author to provide Sulamita with a lesbian experience in order to explain away her changes of mind. It seemed like the book was suddenly pandering to today’s liberal values by pointing out her unjust ostracism. As a witness to the experience, Aunt Rahel used the threat of exposure, in order to get her way.
Although I found it to be a slow read, at first, in the last 75 pages, the story suddenly came to life with the influence of The Holocaust and the British Partition of the Holy Land in 1947, which caused the Arabs to go on a rampage raining down destruction and death on Jews wherever they found them. As it moved forward in time, I grew more engaged with the story. I thought the story got bogged down in the trials and triumphs of day to day life, rather than in the big picture world, of Jewry, and so it became less of an historic narrative and more of a fairy tale. The introduction of a certain amount of mysticism or magic, trending into the supernatural, with prescient dreams and Henna designs that came to life, stretched my imagination a little, but it did add some charm to the story. This book relates how some survived. It is a story of violence and betrayal, loyalty and infidelity, all wrapped up in the pages of a love story.
Still, I learned many things from reading the book. I learned about the custom of henna painting, and that was really interesting. I was surprised to find so many parallels between the ways the Muslims and the Jews treated their women and the way in which both ethnic groups dressed. Both adhered to strict codes of attire. I noted that the male progeny seemed arrogant while the women were expected to be totally subservient and were not only purchased as chattel, they were treated as such. I also learned about the Confiscator who watched the community carefully to discover the next Jewish orphan in order to appropriate and immerse the child into the Muslim world. An exceptional lesson for me was learning about The Magic Carpet which was an effort to rescue the Yemeni Jews fleeing from the Arabs who were attacking them, robbing, beating and murdering them, for no reason other than they seemed to want to and that they were there. Previously, I had only known about the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, who were also forced to flee their country.