A traveler’s tale of tradition

Finding the flower men of Saudi

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There’s a long history of people wearing floral wreaths, or crowns, in civilizations around the world. A symbol of power, love and eternity during the time of antiquity, an award or trophy for athletes and members of the military in ancient Greece, a token to convey that women were of a marrying age in traditional Ukrainian folk dress, and a wedding accessory for brides around the world, the floral wreath is also of significance to the men who wear it in southwest Saudi. In the remote mountain villages of Jazan and Asir, men have incorporated floral head wreaths into their daily dress for centuries. 

Descendants of the Tihama and Asir tribes, the people in this region have a strong and unique culture. To learn more about it and the significance behind the wreaths that adorn their heads, we spoke with photographer Eric Lafforgue, who has visited the flower men three times in the past decade. His stories and photos are featured below. 

Forging Friendships with Flowers

After coming across photos and information about the flower men in a book by Thierry Mauger in the 1980s, Lafforgue said that meeting the flower men was at the top of his list when he had the opportunity to visit Saudi with a tourist visa in 2010.

“When I heard that Saudi Arabia was open, I said, ‘The first thing I want to see is Jeddah, because it’s a historic town, which is fantastic, and I want to see the flower men,’” he says.

During his first trip, Lafforgue forged friendships by taking Polaroid photos and sharing them with the men he met, many of whom had never met a foreigner.

“People were really beautiful with their colorful clothes,” he says, and the older men also had colorful beards dyed with henna in addition to their flower wreaths. “It was really interesting, and the architecture is beautiful in the area. They live in the mountains, so they have some houses made of rock ... It’s really, really impressive to see [this] very, very old culture.”

Though his first trip was short, it was impactful. As soon as Saudi reopened its borders in 2019, he went back. “Then I came back the third time [a year later], and they recognized me, so it was very nice,” he says. “They are very welcoming.” On those trips in 2019 and 2020, Lafforgue got to see the market where they sell the flowers and spend more time with the men, who gifted him a flower crown on his second trip.

“They were very happy to show us how they [make the crowns],” he says.

The crowns use fragrant flowers and colors tied to the tribe, and they sometimes include flora known for their medicinal properties. “There is a meaning for the flowers,” he says. “Some flowers are just for beauty. Some other flowers are medicine flowers or medicine herbs. It’s good because you smell this perfume and there are some good effects for the nose and for a fever.”

The Flower Men’s Flower Wreaths

Although Saudi has vast deserts, the country is also home to more than 2,000 flowering species, especially in the Asir region, which gets heavier rainfall than other parts of the country. This means that the flower men have a wide variety of blooms to work with when choosing what to include in their wreaths from the local markets, such as Addair and Sabya. Common flowers used include marigold, wild basil, fenugreek and occasionally jasmine.

“The flowers are owned by the local men. They have some big, big fields of flowers with different kinds of flowers, and every morning they cut the flowers,” says Lafforgue, emphasizing that they must be fresh. Flowers like jasmine, which is used in more elaborate and ornate crowns, must be kept chilled in a refrigerator or an icebox.

“[At the market], they say, ‘I want this, this, this, this,’ and then the seller makes the crowns specially for the guys who come to buy it,” Lafforgue says.

Each flower crown lasts two to three days, so the men will return to the market every few days to buy new flower wreaths. “They are very happy with them,” says Lafforgue, who adds that the men will often show off their new crowns by posting photos on Instagram.

A Culture All Its Own

During his trips, Lafforgue was invited into homes and open meeting areas for coffee and chatted with locals about their culture and history. “They like their culture so much that there is their culture and the rest of the world,” he says.

One young man sat with Lafforgue and his translator for hours sharing stories about the life of his people; to Lafforgue, this was one of his best experiences.

“Before we left, the man said, ‘Wait,’ and he went into his house, I think, and he came back and offered us some scarves,” Lafforgue says. “We didn’t ask anything. It was just a friendship gesture because, the man said, ‘I was happy to meet some foreigners.’”

Lafforgue’s tip to travelers who want to explore this area and meet the flower men is to respect their culture. “If people see that you respect their culture and you love their culture, they will be much more welcoming and they will show you more; they will take more time to guide you, to show some friends,” he says.

Interested in Learning More? Plan a Trip to Southwest Saudi

As a part of Vision 2030, the country opened its borders in 2019 and is expanding its tourism efforts, which means it will be easier than ever to get to Saudi. “Now with the electronic visa, it’s so simple to go,” Lafforgue says. “You apply online, and you get the answer in 24 hours.”

Additionally, in 2019, the Ministry of Culture organized the first annual Flowerman Festival to raise awareness about the traditions and heritage of these men. The festival functioned as an open-air museum in the Asir region’s Village of Rijal Almaa, which is home to about 60 multistory buildings made of clay, wood and stone. The festival also included live folk performances, a heritage market, and art and poetry nights.

While hiring a local tour guide is a sure way to get the full experience, this annual festival offers another opportunity to learn more about this unique area, its people and their beloved flower headpieces.

Love flora and fauna? Check visitsaudi.com to discover more places in Saudi where you can stop and smell the roses, including Taif, a town famous for its roses, and Yanbu, home to one of the largest flower festivals in the world.

 

—Lisa Zimmermann is a travel writer and editor who has previously written for Club Traveler, Boston magazine, New England Travel, American Airlines and Atlas Magazine.

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