In Saudi Arabia, in the Jizan and Asir southern provinces, along the yemeni border, live the reclusive Flower Men. For centuries, these descendants of the ancient Tihama and Asir tribes love to wear colorful garlands on their head. 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. Twenty years ago, they were living totally isolated, without electricity or paved roads, and they lived according to traditional tribal law.
For the longest time, they were reluctant to have their photos taken or even meet foreigners. The first studies were led only in the 90’s by french photographer Thierry Mauger.
Flower Men have a unique privilege in the Kingdom: they are the only tribes in Saudi Arabia who are allowed to grow and consume khat, a stimulant drug. Possession of drugs is punishable by the death penalty in the kingdom.
With the increasing pace of economic development within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, things are changing quickly even if their society is still very conservative. No chance to see any women in the public spaces for example.
Thanks to the « Vision 2030 » Saudi government project led by Mohammed ben Salmane that plans to bring millions of visitors to the Kingdom, the Flower Men will be for sure an attractive argument to attract tourists.
This area is also the theatre of the ongoing war between KSA and Yemen. This conflict generates a lot of embarrassment in the community as people belong to the same tribe. But in the daily life, the flower power rules.
Flower men like to live in the mountain, an old heritage to monitor the area from the highest points and also a good way to get fresh air in the summertime. The area is popular and attracts lots of people from the lowlands for holidays. They grow coffee on terraces, but also khat, a stimulant drug. An exception in a country where possession of drugs leads to death penalty.
Flower men can also be found on the other side of the Saudi border, in Yemen. The war between Saudi and Yemen makes people uncomfortable as they say they share the same blood for centuries. It affects the local economy based on daily exchanges and brings lot of refugees in KSA.
The Flower Men come early in the morning before it gets too hot to buy ready-made wreaths. Some prefer to select their own herbs and flowers, preparing the garlands themselves, for a more unique look.
Herbs such as wild basil, fenugreek and marigold flowers are most popular and brought on the markets in old 4 wheels Toyotas which are turned into ephemeral shops.
Some imagine Saudi Arabia to be a huge desert, but they are wrong: more than 2000 species of flora can be found in the kingdom.
Flower men do not wear the arabic keffieh. The wreaths are not only beautiful, but are also exquisitely scented made with fresh flowers to look beautiful and smell good.
On the Mahalah flower men market, an old man wears traditional shoes made of palm leaves. Things started to change with the construction of a cable car track in the 1990s that allowed access to the remote villages of the Flower Men. But traditions remain strong with the elders.
The ultimate chic for the senior Flower Men is to match the colors of their wreath with their beard dyed with henna. Many say very seriously they look much younger and much more attractive this way.
The wreaths are sold for a handful of euros. The most elegant ones are made with a type of white jasmin that is so fragile it has to be kept in iceboxes by the sellers. A wreath like this one will be worn two days.
The flowers are also chosen carefully to create an harmony with the tribeʹs traditional dress. Few years ago, the futas were woven by men in the yemeni village of Bayt Al Faqih, nowadays they are made in India.
The wreaths are worn not only for beauty purpose, but also for health reasons: herbal medicine is very popular in KSA and is believed to cure headaches. The kohl the men put on their eyes has also medicinal effects.
The Flower Men are keen to retain their tradition of floral decorations, as it is a way of setting them apart from the others provinces. Men who give up their wreaths will keep their hair long 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.
Despite their love of flowers, the tribes are famous for their combat skills and strong character.
Flower men in the Asir province used to live in this kind of houses until the 80’s.
They are made of red stone and mud bricks. The defensive architectural elements of their houses indicate that the people lived in continuous fear of attack. The watchtowers were used both for security and granaries. Some of them are over two hundred years old.
Inside the abbandoned old houses, you can see the decorated walls with the same color scheme as the flowers crowns. This art called Al-Qatt Al-Asiri was made by the 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.
Children are proud to be seen wearing futas and flowers with their father. The wreaths and garlands are an everyday accessory, but people tend to save their most elaborate natural headgear for Ramadan and weddings. They also wear the traditional dagger called the jambya, made – for the wealthiest – from rhino horn.
In the Najran souq, this saudi merchant holds a 100 000 Us dollars antique jambya with rhino horn handle that he keeps in a huge safe. People are not aware of the the rhino poaching crisis, and the traffic is going on.
It is a tradition to offer a wreath to visitors in Asir. Flower sellers still make these gifts to the rare tourists who penetrate deep into the region, but soon, with the government plan to bring millions of visitors to the Kingdom, this nice tradition will likely fade away…
By Eric Lafforgue