Eve (The Family Orchard, 2000) re-creates the exotic, unfamiliar world of Yemen’s complex Jewish community from the 1920s through its wholesale exodus to Israel in 1949-50 through one young woman’s eyes.
The Damari family lives in Qaraah, a small Northern Yemen village, where their loving but sickly father owns a leather shop. In 1923, the local enforcer of the Orphans Decree—an actual law that allowed Muslims to forcibly remove and adopt fatherless Jewish children—shows particular interest in 5-year-old Adela Damari. Given her father’s precarious health, Adela grows up under a cloud of fear. The only way to avoid adoption is to become betrothed, a common-enough event for children in her culture. Unfortunately, Adela’s fiances keep dying, one of several bits of semimagical realism in the novel. Finally, thanks to her tough-minded mother’s trickery, Adela finds herself engaged at age 8 to her first cousin Asaf, recently arrived with his spice-merchant father from India. Their childhood romance progresses until Asaf must leave Qaraah with his father. Not yet in puberty, Adela pines for him, but her life changes dramatically in 1930 when another uncle moves to Qaraah with his wife, Rahel, a healer and gifted henna dyer—who knew henna was important in Eastern Jewish culture?—and their daughter, Hani. Despite her tradition-bound mother’s disapproval and distrust, Adela is immediately drawn to her sophisticated, imaginative and warmhearted relatives. Hani, who teaches her to read, becomes Adela’s most trusted friend. Rahel teaches her the art of henna. But happiness shatters in 1933 when drought and illness strike. Adela, now a young woman of 15, flees with Hani’s family to British-controlled Aden. Asaf reappears in their lives the next year. Suddenly the novel switches gears: Leisurely, slightly mystical, bittersweet reminiscence gives way to rushed melodrama as betrayal and sexuality mix under the long shadow of World War II.
Eve is a natural storyteller; too bad the paint-by-numbers ending undermines her riveting portrait of the lost culture of Yemeni Jews.