In Saudi Arabia, in the Jizan and Asir southern provinces, along with the Yemeni border, I found the legendary ‘flower men’.
For centuries, the descendants of the ancient Tihama and Asir tribes loved to wear colorful garlands. Forget the Arabic keffiyeh, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair! The wreaths made of fresh flowers are not only beautiful to look at but they also are exquisitely scented.
And, of course, the first thing they did when they saw me was putting a garland on my head!
Some imagine Saudi Arabia is a huge desert, but they are wrong: more than 2000 species of flora can be found in the Kingdom. The garlands and wreaths are made every morning in local markets like Sabya or Addair.
The men come to the market to buy ready-made wreaths early in the morning before it gets too hot. Some prefer to select their own herbs and flowers and prepare the garlands themselves for a more unique look. Herbs such as wild basil, fenugreek, and marigold flowers are the most popular.
An old man wears traditional shoes made of palm leaves In the Mahalah flower men market. Twenty years ago, they were leading totally isolated lives without electricity or concrete roads and were living according to the dictates of conservative tribal law. No women can be seen in those markets, it is a male business.
The ultimate chic for the old flower men is to match the colors of their wreath with their beard dyed with henna. Many say they look much younger and much more attractive like this.
The wreaths are sold for a handful of euros. The most elegant ones are made with a type of white jasmine that is so fragile, sellers have to keep it in iceboxes. A wreath like this one can be worn for two days.
The flowers are carefully chosen to create a harmony with the tribeʹs traditional dress. A few years ago, futas were woven in the Yemeni village of Bayt Al Faqih, but nowadays they are made in India.
The wreaths are worn not only for aesthetic purposes but also for health reasons: herbal medicine is very popular in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is believed to cure headaches. You even can spot people putting wild basil directly into the nose when they feel ill. The kohl men put on their eyes has also medicinal effects.
Flower men can also be found on the other side of the Saudi border, in Yemen. The ongoing war between both countries has generated a lot of embarrassment in the community as people belong to the same tribe.
Flower men still like to live in the mountains, an old tradition that enables them to monitor the area from the highest points and also a good way to get fresh air in the summertime. They grow coffee and khat, a stimulant drug, on terraces. People can chew khat only in this area of Saudi Arabia. An exception in a country where possession of drugs leads to the death penalty.
Flower men in the Asir province used to live in this kind of houses until the ’80s. They are made of red stone and mud bricks. The watchtowers were used both for security and granaries.
Inside the abandoned old houses, you can notice the walls decorated with the same color scheme as the flowers crowns. This art called Al-Qatt Al-Asiri was created by women and has recently been listed by UNESCO. The women also wear floral garlands, mostly at home, but taking pictures of them is strictly forbidden.
Many flower men still take care of old family houses or watchtowers, some of them over two hundred years old. Local people are keen to explain that their community has inhabited the region for more than 2000 years.
The wreaths and garlands are an everyday accessory, but people tend to save their most elaborate natural headgear for Ramadan and weddings. Friends are often seen sporting the same look.
Despite their love of flowers, the tribes are famous for their combat skills. For the longest time, they were reluctant to have their photos taken or to even meet foreigners. With the increasing pace of economic development within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, things are changing quickly.
The flower men are keen to retain their tradition of floral decorations, as it is a peaceful way of setting them apart from the rest of the country. If some men give up the wreaths, many keep the long hair as a part of the local culture.
Some are so proud of their floral decorations that they share them on Instagram. It is also a good way of showing off their looks to the girls they love before the wedding. Even if society is still very conservative, social networks are allowing young men and women to have private contact with each other.
Children are proud to be seen wearing futas and flowers with their fathers. They also wear the traditional dagger called the jambiya, made from rhino horn for the wealthiest.
In a local market, this Saudi merchant holds a 100 000 US dollars antique jambiya with rhino horn handle that he keeps in a huge safe. People are not aware of the rhino poaching crisis.
It is a tradition to offer a wreath to visitors in Asir. Flower sellers still make these gifts to the rare tourists who reach this region, But soon, with the Saudi Vision 2030 project led by Mohammed ben Salmane that plans to bring millions of visitors to the Kingdom, this nice tradition will likely fade away.
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