Saudi Arabia's flower men: The violent tribe that smells blooming beautiful!

Published January 31st, 2015 - 08:56 GMT
Al Bawaba
Al Bawaba

They live in the Habala Mountains that straddle Saudi Arabia's southern border with Yemen but take orders from neither government, instead living their lives under the dictates of tribal law.

Meet the 'flower men', a tribe of people descended from the ancient Tihama and Asir groupings and whose traditions, most strikingly the garlands of herbs and blooms they wear, date back more than two millennia.

But as photographer Eric Lafforgue discovered, they are the source of much unrest in the region, conducting cross-border battles and reacting violently should any outsider stumble into their turf - including to Lafforgue himself. 

That remained the case until the early 1990s when the Saudi Arabian government, keen to boost tourism in the region, built cable cars to the villages and hotels for tourists to stay in.

But with many of the flower men forced out of their homes by the development, clashes soon erupted and the area remains volatile - not least because of the turmoil in neighbouring Yemen.

'I had planned to be in the area for a few days but quickly realised it would be very difficult,' Lafforgue revealed in an exclusive interview with MailOnline Travel. 'I had to stop and get a local escort of policemen before I could go into the area.

'The policemen told me some of the local people really hate foreigners, while even Saudi people aren't welcome in some villages.'

As a result, when Lafforgue arrived in the village of Rijal Alma, the locals' initial response was to hide. 'There were a few old women about who hid from me as soon as I tried to approach them.' 

'When I arrived in the village, it was market day and a few old women were there. They hid themselves from me as soon as I tried to come towards them.'



The men, however, proved more amenable with Lafforgue able to photograph a group of flower-decked men who screeched up in the back of a battered old Toyota.

He was fascinated by their garlands, most of which were made using wild basil and jasmine picked in the foothills of the Habala Mountains. 'They do it every day,' he explains. 'They all want to look better than their neighbours.'

Not every garland is worn for its beauty, however. 'They use similar herbs as a cure for headaches,' he explains. 'But those garlands aren't so beautiful to look at. They even put herbs up their noses when they have a cold, which doesn't look so romantic.'

But their beautiful garlands conceal a penchant for violence, which Lafforgue became all too aware of when he attempted to step into a local restaurant for lunch.

Inside, he was threatened with knives by the flower men. 'Those guys are serious,' he remembers. 'The policemen kept telling me that they don't play games and they were right.

'For the first time in my life, I saw policemen with guns terrified of men with knifes.' And they had good reason. According to Thierry Mauger, a French anthropologist who visited the tribe in the 1990s, the flower men even attempted to rape him.

Luckily for Lafforgue, the men soon calmed down and he and his increasingly nervous police escort decided to leave. 'The police got nervous after an hour,' he explains.  'Nobody had stayed so long they asked me to leave. I know I was lucky to meet them.'

And despite his hair-raising experience, Lafforgue has some sympathy for the men who attacked him. 'It is all down to a lack of contact with foreigners,' he says. 'They have also fought for centuries with other tribes who want to take their land.

'Their villages look like fortified castles with huge towers and walls, and they surround them with rocks for an extra line of defence. You can see that they have had to fight hard to keep their land.' 

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