The ‘flower men’ of Saudi

Their flo­ral nick­name comes from the fact that many Qah­tani men tra­di­tion­ally crown their heads with in­tri­cate ar­range­ments of herbs, flow­ers and grasses.

Sunday Trust - - SUNDAY MAGAZINE - Source: bbc.com

It’s a per­fect selfie op­por­tu­nity in the most un­likely of set­tings. Four-wheel­ers wind pre­car­i­ously up the sides of lush moun­tains, their back­seats filled with Saudi fam­i­lies and tourists from other parts of the Ara­bian Penin­sula. As the ve­hi­cles make their way through the cool mist, the pas­sen­gers in­ter­mit­tently pull over to dig for cam­eras and wal­lets. Jeep doors are flung open as they ap­proach stalls sell­ing honey, fruit and - the most cov­eted good - daz­zling flower crowns of red and orange blooms. Vis­i­tors pose for cam­eras with the wreaths atop their heads, their best smiles on show for so­cial me­dia.

The flower crowns for sale at sites across ‘Asir province aren’t merely bait for cash-flush tourists seek­ing to show off to their friends back home. These in­tri­cately con­structed head­pieces are the tra­di­tional garb of the so-called ‘Flower Men’: mem­bers of the Qah­tan tribe who main­tain the prac­tice of don­ning flow­ers and green­ery for the sake of both beauty and health, and now sell these tra­di­tional crowns to vis­i­tors to the re­gion.

To­day, mostly con­cen­trated in the south­ern Ara­bian Penin­sula, Qah­ta­nis are said to be the old­est so­cial for­ma­tions in the area, claim­ing to be the de­scen­dants of Ish­mael, son of Abra­ham, of the He­brew Bi­ble. Their flo­ral nick­name comes from the fact that many Qah­tani men tra­di­tion­ally crown their heads with in­tri­cate ar­range­ments of herbs, flow­ers and grasses.

Ac­cord­ing to the late re­searcher Thierry Mauger, the con­struc­tion of these flower crowns is ap­proached by the tribe’s younger men as a friendly beauty com­pe­ti­tion: they in­cor­po­rate as many colour­ful ad­di­tions, like marigold and jas­mine, as pos­si­ble. Men of mid­dle age and above, con­versely, take a more som­bre ap­proach, con­struct­ing their wreaths with green­ery like wild basil. Some wear them daily for aes­thetic pur­poses, while oth­ers adorn them­selves on spe­cial oc­ca­sions like ma­jor Mus­lim hol­i­days. Oth­ers still wear them when sick, choos­ing herbs and green­ery specif­i­cally for their medic­i­nal prop­er­ties.

But flo­ral crowns are not the only el­e­ment that sets this tribal group apart from the dom­i­nant Saudi cul­ture, pop­u­larised by the gov­ern­ment elite, most of whom are orig­i­nally from the Najd and Hi­jaz re­gions.

The Flower Men’s home re­gion, ‘Asir, is lo­cated atop a plateau that re­ceives more rain­fall than any other area of the king­dom. In May and June, tem­per­a­tures in the coun­try’s in­te­rior ci­ties can top 30C, but ‘Asir province, some 900km south-west of the cap­i­tal Riyadh, greets un­pre­pared tourists with chilly winds and the oc­ca­sional rain­storm. Its peaks, the high­est in the coun­try, host agri­cul­tural ter­races carved into the moun­tain­side by its in­hab­i­tants who sub­sist on small-scale farm­ing of wheat, cof­fee and fruit.

The Qah­tan tribal group has had a try­ing history. In Ara­bic, ‘Asir trans­lates to ‘dif­fi­cult’, and it is this chal­leng­ing re­mote­ness of ‘Asir’s jagged cliffs, ac­cord­ing to Their flo­ral nick­name comes from the fact that many Qah­tani men tra­di­tion­ally crown their heads with in­tri­cate ar­range­ments of herbs, flow­ers and grasses. lo­cal folk­lore, that led a hand­ful of Qah­tani fam­i­lies to flee here from the sur­round­ing low­lands to es­cape the in­vad­ing armies of the Ot­toman Em­pire more than 350 years ago. Fol­low­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of ‘Asir by forces loyal to the House of Saud, the re­gion was in­cor­po­rated into the Saudi na­tion in 1932.

Liv­ing in small, self-gov­ern­ing groups in the moun­tains, the Qah­tani vil­lages were barely ac­ces­si­ble - for both pro­tec­tion from sur­round­ing tribes and po­lit­i­cal au­ton­omy - un­til the late 20th Cen­tury. The set­tle­ment of Ha­bala (de­rived from the Ara­bic word for ‘rope’), for ex­am­ple, was only reach­able by a net­work of handrails and rope lad­ders. The con­struc­tion of a ca­ble car in the 1990s by the Saudi gov­ern­ment in­creased ac­cess to the re­mote area, but also high­lighted is­sues con­cern­ing the in­te­gra­tion of tribes into the na­tional iden­tity and whether these unique cul­tures can with­stand mod­erni­sa­tion.

But, de­spite the odds, many of the Flower Men’s cus­toms have in­deed sur­vived. In fact, the prac­tices that risked be­ing for­got­ten now serve to at­tract tourists to the re­gion. In small eater­ies dot­ting the wind­ing runs of Ja­bal Sawda, Saudi Ara­bia’s tallest peak, Qah­tani servers fes­tooned with bright blooms bring hot plates of goat and rice to lo­cals and vis­i­tors. Guides at Ha­bala greet vis­i­tors wear­ing colour­ful striped cloths draped at the waist. In com­par­i­son to the aus­tere gar­ments worn by women

in the drier, hot­ter re­gions of the coun­try, the Qah­tani women tra­di­tion­ally wear closer-cut styles that keep them warm when tem­per­a­tures drop. Al­though they don’t wear the flower-laden head­pieces, head­scarves and cloaks dis­play in­tri­cate geo­met­ric em­broi­dery and tas­sels are fes­tive in bright yel­low, blue and red.

Trav­el­ling in the re­gion, one can’t help but marvel at the mud and stone build­ings, dat­ing back more than 200 years, that look like earthen mini-sky­scrapers. These homes were con­structed in close ar­range­ment in trib­ally grouped com­mu­ni­ties, rem­i­nis­cent of dwellings found in the Ye­meni ci­ties of Sana’a or Shibam, demon­strat­ing that a com­mon cul­ture be­tween the two states pre­cedes the es­tab­lish­ment of mod­ern bor­ders.

Cu­ri­ous vis­i­tors crane their necks to get a good look at the watch­tow­ers, which, though no longer in use, rise above the res­i­den­tial quar­ters. The build­ings boast com­plex ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails that al­low the homes to with­stand the re­al­i­ties of ‘Asir’s cli­mate: drainage sys­tems that pre­vent rain­fall from ac­cu­mu­lat­ing on roofs; a den­sity of bricks to pro­mote ther­mal re­ten­tion and acous­tics; and the homes’ few, small win­dows and bright-blue bor­ders, two el­e­ments said to keep both mos­qui­toes and evil spir­its at bay.

The in­side of these homes are a vis­ual treat all unto them­selves. In­te­rior walls - par­tic­u­larly in the ma­jlis, the room des­ig­nated for re­ceiv­ing guests - are painted in an ar­ray of bright blue, green, red and yel­low, the geo­met­ric de­signs re­flect­ing the pat­terns that have come to de­fine an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of ‘Asir’s iden­tity (and were in­scribed on Unesco’s Rep­re­sen­ta­tive List of the In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage of Hu­man­ity in 2017).

To­day, these mu­rals take their in­spi­ra­tion from the ar­chi­tec­tural sym­bols that, in the past, told vis­i­tors about the in­hab­i­tants of the house: pat­terns, shapes and shades in­formed oth­ers of the age, gen­der and make-up of each fam­ily. Re­painted each year dur­ing the hajj sea­son, a month dic­tated by the lu­nar cal­en­dar when Mus­lims make the pil­grim­age to the holy city of Mecca, these dec­o­ra­tions are the work of lo­cal women who trans­mit the art form in­ter-gen­er­a­tionally by invit­ing rel­a­tives of all ages to aid in the an­nual up­keep.

But most of the tiny, iso­lated vil­lages atop the high­est peaks are empty.

As part of a project to make the re­gion more ac­ces­si­ble to tourists, in the last half of the 20th Cen­tury the Saudi gov­ern­ment forcibly re­lo­cated res­i­dents of vil­lages like Ha­bala, set­tling them in newly con­structed de­vel­op­ments with ac­cess to bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture, ser­vices and schools. Their vil­lages now op­er­ate as sites for tourists to ex­plore ‘Asiri cul­ture; the Flower Men only re­turn tem­po­rar­ily to their an­ces­tral vil­lages to give tours, per­form staged demon­stra­tions of tra­di­tional re­gional dances and build their busi­nesses around the tourist econ­omy.

The in­side of these homes are a vis­ual treat all unto them­selves. In­te­rior walls - par­tic­u­larly in the ma­jlis, the room des­ig­nated for re­ceiv­ing guests - are painted in an ar­ray of bright blue, green, red and yel­low, the geo­met­ric de­signs re­flect­ing the pat­terns that have come to de­fine an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of ‘Asir’s iden­tity

Herein lies the para­dox of this un­der­rep­re­sented re­gion: the slow trickle of mod­erni­sa­tion chips away at in­dige­nous ways of life, but an in­creased in­ter­est from the out­side brings with it the pos­si­bil­ity of safe­keep­ing cus­toms at risk of dis­ap­pear­ing. Ha­bala, due to its pic­turesque land­scape and history of near-to­tal iso­la­tion, has re­ceived par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion from tourists.

But this doesn’t mean Qah­tani cul­ture is be­ing com­pletely eroded. Though many Flower Men now de­pend on the tourist econ­omy to sup­port their fam­i­lies, in­ter­est in the province has led to op­por­tu­ni­ties for lo­cals to en­gage in their own cul­tural preser­va­tion. Af­ter many years of a na­tional econ­omy made wealthy by its oil re­serves, Saudi Ara­bia’s Vi­sion 2030, which aims to lessen de­pen­dence on oil rev­enue in the decades ahead, in­cludes plans to strengthen cul­tural pro­grammes and the tourism sec­tor. An al­lo­ca­tion of nearly $1 bil­lion dol­lars has been set aside to re­store her­itage sites, in­clud­ing those in ‘Asir.

While many top-down ini­tia­tives like those of Vi­sion 2030 fo­cus on sim­ply pre­serv­ing the past, other projects are con­cerned with in­cor­po­rat­ing lo­cal knowl­edge with cul­tural and eco­nomic pro­duc­tion.

In 2017, the or­gan­i­sa­tion Art Jameel taught lo­cal artists the skills nec­es­sary for dig­i­tally record­ing tra­di­tional ‘Asiri mu­ral paint­ings, with the goal of de­vel­op­ing pro­duc­ers at the com­mu­nity level who will sup­port tra­di­tional arts and crafts. Sim­i­larly, Dar Al-Hekma Univer­sity in Jed­dah spear­headed a project in 2014 en­ti­tled Rein­vent­ing ‘Asir that uses me­dia, sci­ence, art and tech­nol­ogy to en­cour­age the preser­va­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture in tan­dem with sup­port­ing con­tem­po­rary art, sus­tain­able lo­cal de­vel­op­ment and agri­cul­ture.

“Since the ‘Asiris al­ways proudly lived off the land and built their houses in a self-sus­tained man­ner,” ex­plains the project’s mis­sion state­ment, “they are in fact again at the fore­front of what are con­sid­ered glob­ally cut­ting-edge trends.”

When night falls and the tour buses make their way to nearby ho­tels, the moun­tain vil­lages like Ha­bala again sit empty. It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­serve your flower crown once you’ve left ‘Asir: af­ter a few days, the blooms dry and flake with even the light­est touch, and the basil and jas­mine lose their scent. Though much of ‘Asir’s re­cent eco­nomic suc­cess has fo­cussed solely on the preser­va­tion of lo­cal history, hope­fully these new ini­tia­tives that aim to bring lo­cals into the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process will al­low ‘Asir to be a cul­tur­ally unique place of the past, as well as have a blos­som­ing fu­ture.

“[The] fact is that any true iden­tity emerges from both: the past and the fu­ture, mem­ory and in­ven­tion,” said Anna Kling­mann, head of the ar­chi­tec­ture depart­ment at Dar Al-Hekma Univer­sity. “If we pri­ori­tise one over the other, ne­glect­ing ei­ther mem­ory or in­ven­tion, the fu­ture or the past, part of our iden­tity suf­fers.”

Male mem­bers of Saudi Ara­bia’s Qah­tan tribe are known as ‘Flower Men’ for their in­tri­cately con­structed flo­ral head­pieces

The head­pieces are donned for the sake of both beauty and health – some are made from flora be­lieved to fend off headaches or si­nus mal­adies

Sweet-smelling: Al­though cooler than the desert that dom­i­nates the rest of Saudi, the moun­tains are hot and the herbs ward off bad smells

They told Lafforgue that they all com­pete with each other to make the most beau­ti­ful gar­lands they can

Flower man from Asir, Saudi Ara­bia

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