FOOC – Taif, Saudi Arabia

I wrote for FOOC (From Our Own Correspondent) from Taif in Saudi Arabia about the rose industry there – and a strange meeting in Taif airport.

Radio 4 programme page here (my audio from 18:15)

My article for BBC News here, reproduced below.

East of Mecca, Saudi Highway 15 scoots across the sweltering Tihama plain. Switchbacks as tight as the coils of a desert viper climb 6,000ft (1,800m) to Al-Hada Mountain, the Mountain of Tranquillity.

The Prophet Muhammad came this way 1,392 years ago, resting in the highland city of Taif and sampling the local grapes.

Today, Taif is the focus of Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion-pound domestic tourism industry.

There are luxury hotels, holiday apartments and family picnic spots. And since Ottoman times, farms all around Taif have cultivated the damask rose, a pink, 30-petalled beauty.

By sunrise at this time of year, Saleh Al-Nimri is out in his fields with a team of workers, picking as many as 40,000 roses in a morning. “If we leave the rose until noon,” he told me, “all its perfume will evaporate.”

That perfume of Arabia is indescribable – robust, spicy and dizzyingly complex. It is, almost literally, a world away from the clear simplicity of an English rose.

Every day during the spring harvest, lorries bring sackfuls of roses to factories all around Taif. Workers transfer the flowers to copper stills, each holding 20,000 heads.

Then the process of distillation begins – 13 gallons (60 litres) of fresh water is boiled down to eight gallons of concentrated rose water, which is then bottled for sale as a culinary and medicinal speciality.

But the premium product is the slender film of rose oil left floating on top, which sells for an astonishing $40,000 a litre. It is only available in vials half the size of your finger. The scent of it knocks you out.

Shihab al-Qadhi, owner of Taif’s biggest rose factory, told me his grandfather began with one still – now there are 60.

A small, precise man in middle age, with a neat, silver beard and a brown robe, Mr al-Qadhi showed me around and explained the economics of the business.

He told me how he uses the petal residue after distillation for cattle feed. “It makes the milk taste rosy for weeks!” he said grinning.

A few days later in the airport, still with the perfume of rose oil on my fingers, I found an empty seat to wait for my flight.

A few places along sat a businessman in red checked head-cloth and sparkling white robe, creases neatly ironed.

After a minute or two, he leant over and spoke to me in English. “They make these chairs deliberately uncomfortable, you know,” he confided and we got chatting.

He said he was on his way home from a company meeting. We talked about his work and then – cautiously – moved on to politics.

In a low voice he told me how one man he had heard of had tried to launch a protest. It failed. The police had carted the man off to a mental hospital. “But,” said the man, “our media is not free – they didn’t report any of it.”

While we talked, there was a constant click from his wooden prayer beads. Muslim men across the Arab world, and beyond, carry beads.

Ostensibly they are a device for prayer. Each bead, as it passes through the fingers, stands for one of the 99 sacred names of God in Islam.

But more often people toy with them absent-mindedly, even swinging them around carelessly on one finger while chatting on the phone. Nobody gives them a second glance.

The man smiled conspiratorially, leant over and showed me his prayer beads. “If they saw this,” he said, “I’d be in big trouble.”

The Catholic rosary combines prayer beads with a crucifix

I looked down. In his palm, nestled in the coil of beads, was a small silver crucifix. He closed his fist, leant back and carried on playing with what I had now realised was a Catholic rosary.

Apostasy – that is, the rejection of Islam by a Muslim – carries the death penalty in Saudi.

I looked around. People were browsing the duty-free. Normal life carried on. Nobody noticed.

“I’m a Muslim, of course,” said the man. “The beads are from my Christian lover in Beirut.”

I looked at him, amazed. Saudi law allows adulterers to be punished with death by stoning.

This man was carrying his personal protest with him in plain view. And he had chosen to reveal his act of rebellion to an audience of one in an airport.

We spent perhaps another five minutes together. He told me about his family, then he got up, said goodbye, and went off to catch his flight, briefcase in one hand, rosary in the other. He never asked me my name. I never asked him his.