- The tribe live in the foothills of the Habala Mountains in Saudi Arabia’s southern Asir province
- Men wear colourful floral garlands in a bid to look good and smell nice in the intense heat
- Despite their love of flowers, the tribes are notoriously violent and engage in cross-border battles
- So dangerous are some of the tribes, the Saudi Arabian police refuse to enter some of the villages
- Their villages are fortified with the tribesmen so far resisting all attempts to develop their land
John Hutchinson for MailOnline
04:44 EST, 30 January 2015
14:03 EST, 30 January 2015
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.
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Ancient traditions: The flower men of the Habala Mountains are part of a tribal group that has lived in the area for more than 2,000 years
Elaborate: The men wear ornate garlands made from herbs and flowers growing wild in the foothills of the mountains
Beautiful: As well as making the men look and smell nicer, some of the garlands have a medicinal purpose and are used to cure headaches
‘In the past, it was totally forbidden for foreigners to enter the area and the villages,’ explains Lafforgue, adding: ‘Some hill villages were only reachable with a rope anyway.’
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.’
Restorative: Garlands made exclusively for medicinal purposes, such as the one this man is wearing, are less pretty and stuffed with herbs
Intricate: This garland is made from woven marigold heads, although most are made using fragrant wild jasmine and basil
Sweet-smelling: Although cooler than the desert that dominates the rest of Saudi, the mountains are hot and the herbs ward off bad smells
Excitement: The men rarely see outsiders and locals reacted excitedly when Lafforgue first arrived, with this man calling his friends to tell them
Striking: The men, who all live in a small village called Asir, were initially happy to tell Lafforgue about their garlands and pose for photos
Labour: They explained that they go into the foothills of the Habala Mountains every morning in search of fresh herbs for their garlands
Looking good: They told Lafforgue that they all compete with each other to make the most beautiful garlands they can
‘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.
Recovering: Not all were for beauty. This man is wearing herbs in the hopes of dealing with a headache. He would use the same for colds
Decisions: Not all of the men wear flower garlands, however. Some, such as the man on the right, choose simple scarves instead
Proud: Despite their colourful garlands, the tribe are proudly independent and have fought for centuries to keep control of their land
Conflict: Many, such as this boy, can expect a future that sees them battle with encroaching tribes coming across the Yemen border
Suspicious: As a result of that and bungled government intervention. the men are enormously suspicious of outsiders
Armed: All carry a ceremonial knife and as Lafforgue discovered during his visit, they are not afraid to use them
In charge: The villages are led by headsmen, usually elderly men such as this man. He has dyed his beard red to show devotion to Islam
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.’
Unchanged: The tribe live in much the same way as their ancestors did. They have lived in the Habala Mountains for more than 2,000 years
Colourful: The streets of Rijal Alma, a village visited by Lafforgue, were decorated with bright graphic patterns in red, blue and green
Detailed: The houses in Rijal Alma were decorated with elaborate chequered patterns while nearly all had balconies (right)
Fortress: The people of Rijal Alma have been forced to fight for their land and as a result, many of the homes look more like fortified castles
Protected: Women are kept out of sight inside the houses. During his visit, Lafforgue was only allowed to meet the men
Volatile: As their tower-like homes suggest, the men remain on guard and, at one point, threatened Lafforgue with their knives
Remote: The stunning view of the Habala Mountains taken from Rijal Alma reveals just how remote the flower men’s home is