Published in CNN Traveller, Sept-Oct 2009
The honey-seller smiled, and lifted his ladle high. Golden honey streamed down and the warm air in his little shop filled with a mouthwatering aroma – in a mental flash I instantly recalled sunny fields of scented flowers and childhood treats of white-bread honey sandwiches, soft and delicious. He offered me a little spoon to taste: the honey was deep, rich and complex, layered with flavours I could not name. “This is samr,” he explained. “The Arabic name for Acacia tortilis. One of the simplest honeys – just 300 riyals [US$80] for a kilo.”
What followed, hidden away in the old souk of Taif, was a honey masterclass. One of Arabia’s leading centres of honey production, Taif – pronounced ta’if, with a glottal stop – stands roughly 180km southeast of Jeddah, elevated at 1,700 metres above sea level in the mountains of Saudi Arabia’s western Hijaz region. While the coast swelters, Taif remains cool and pleasant. This balmy climate has been the mark of the city’s success. Its countryside has long been cultivated – the Qur’an records that the Prophet Muhammad ate grapes when he visited Taif in 619 AD – and the area is best known today for its roses. In spring, thousands of farms harvest millions of blooms of Rosa damascena trigintipetala, the Taif Rose. Under a careful double-distillation process the rose-petals surrender attar, an essential oil, which sells for an astonishing 3000 riyals (US$800) per tolah (11.7 grams).
Roses, of course, attract bees – and Taif has also long been a centre of apiculture, producing honey that is prized across the Middle East.
Talal Al-Lihbi, my smiling host, turned out to be one of Taif’s top honey-sellers. He takes a pride in his work, and encouraged me to taste the full range of his wares, including saifi honey, another variety of acacia – light, fresh and free-flowing. The session culminated with a sampling of his heady, full-flavoured sidr honey, made from the flowers of Ziziphus spinachristi, a variety of buckthorn, and premium-priced at 600 riyals (US$160) a kilo.
I eventually staggered out into the sunlight, half-drunk on honey fumes. But there was to be no respite: just next door was one of the souk’s many sellers of Taif’s signature rose essence – in my befuddlement I missed the name – where I was invited to plunge into another sampling session. As Frances Linzee Gordon, author of Lonely Planet’s coverage of Saudi Arabia, put it to me, Taif plugs directly into “the Arab love affair with all things olfactory”.
Yet that love affair is played out on a small stage: in terms of international tourism to Saudi Arabia, Taif barely registers. I discussed the market with Ahmed Ali Mostafa, managing director of Sadd Al-Samallaghi, one of the country’s leading tour companies. Almost all foreign groups, he told me, make a beeline for the ancient rock-carved city of Madain Saleh in the north, the sites around Riyadh, and urban attractions such as the Jeddah souk. Few head for Taif.
“It’s the gateway to the mountains,” he explained. “Tourists who want to see the high peaks, but who can’t go to Yemen because of the security issues, might come to Taif on an itinerary into the highlands. But it’s rare.”
Yet for the domestic market Taif, with its uncharacteristically mild climate and lush countryside, is a major attraction – and by far the majority of non-religious tourism in Saudi Arabia is domestic. Local tourism generated US$8.5 billion in 2007, about sixty percent more than the total receipts from international tourism (which can be ascribed almost exclusively to 9 million pilgrims a year, virtually none of whom venture beyond the Jeddah-Mecca-Medina triangle).
Saudis are inveterate travellers: many urban families from Riyadh and the humid Gulf coast take extended summer holidays in the relative cool of highland Taif and other resorts in the southwestern Asir mountains. The market for domestic air travel is buoyant enough to support three national airlines: the flag carrier Saudi Arabian and two low-cost rivals, Sama and Nas. All three compete on a network linking dozens of town and cities, within which Taif is a key hub – and this year Taif airport was earmarked for a major upgrade to international standard. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, governor of the Mecca region (in which Taif is located), asserted recently: “Taif is the kingdom’s number one tourist centre.”
Yet, bar the rose factories and a palace museum, sights are few. I hooked up with Ahmed Boug, director of Taif’s National Wildlife Research Centre, for the trip to Mahazat As-Sayd, a nature reserve spread across the stony desert plains 160km to the northeast. As we drove, Ahmed – also a published poet and essayist – explained Taif’s chief cultural attraction, an annual fair named Souk Okaz. In the centuries before Islam, it drew merchants from across Arabia to trade textiles, crafts, perfumes and spices. Singers and poets competed in public, acting as transmitters of Arab culture in a time before literature. Souk Okaz died out around 760 AD, but in the last couple of years has been revived on the same site, which now lies alongside the Taif-Riyadh highway. The modern Souk Okaz is destined to be a permanent cultural fixture: in 2008 it showcased recitations and workshops by more than two thousand poets from around the Arab world, amid pageants of singers, craft workshops and food stalls.
I was there weeks ahead of the next Souk Okaz, though, and the site was empty. We sped on, surrounded by endless harra, the stony desert plains of central Arabia. At Mahazat As-Sayd, after being served the obligatory welcome refreshments of dates and pleasantly bitter, cardamom-spiced coffee, I ventured out into the protected area – at 2,500 square kilometres one of the world’s largest fenced reserves, roughly the size of Oxfordshire in England. It exists chiefly to facilitate the reintroduction of the Arabian oryx, a long-horned white antelope which was hunted to extinction in the wild in the 1970s. The terrain is starkly beautiful, characterised by immense expanses of gravel dotted by acacia and tamarisk. As mammologist Khairi Ismail took the wheel in a rugged four-wheel-drive, we glimpsed a poetic scene all-but-impossible elsewhere in Arabia – thirty gazelle and a dozen oryx, loping together across the empty plains.
Yet not everybody appreciates the poetry. Khairi told me that, in the last few years, Mahazat’s rangers have switched from collecting data on the oryx to simply patrolling the fence. Poachers have begun using night-vision equipment. “They move silently without lights, coordinating using GPS and mobile phones,” he said. “They just shoot the nearest animal. The whole ‘hunt’ takes no more than an hour.”
The reserve is also battling climate change: rainfall levels have been consistently dropping, to a point at which the drought has become an emergency. Some oryx and gazelle have succumbed, and where scientists previously stood back and allowed the herds to seek out their own resources, now they find themselves forced to intervene with water stations, augmentation of food and salt-licks simply to ensure that the endangered oryx survive.
As we drove back to Taif, Ahmed explained that Saudi Arabia has also had great success with oryx reintroduction, particularly at the Uruq Bani Maarid reserve in the Empty Quarter dunes south of Riyadh, yet at Mahazat As-Sayd, as he put it, “policing the herds is consuming a lot of time, effort and resources. It has hit us, as scientists, badly.”
My last morning in Taif, he and I returned to the souk for breakfast at Al-Shawli, a local restaurant celebrating its sixtieth year in business. Even at 7am the place was abuzz.
We found a corner table and Ahmed grinned as he ordered me a “maximum comfort breakfast!” This turned out to be maasoob, a traditional Taif dish of wheat porridge mixed with honey, goat fat, buttermilk and banana – dense, creamy and super-rich. I nibbled at it with a teaspoon, even as fresh-baked flat bread appeared on our table to accompany the main course: fuul (boiled fava beans) mixed with sesame, tomato salsa and cumin, prepared in local style with the addition of a foil-wrapped nugget of charcoal in the pot to lend a delicious smoky flavour. After all that, plus copious quantities of scalding hot, sweet tea, I ended my Taif adventure as I began it: reeling out into the streets of the souk, poleaxed by hospitality.