Saudi Arabia. Noon. Friday, 22June. 21.50° N, 39.18° E
Outside, the Streets of Jeddah are deserted. The devout are busy – well – being devout. It would be 40 degrees C in the shade if there were any. Even the mad dogs are taking a break. Only the occasional Englishman, mandatory panama at a defiantly jaunty tilt, is strolling the intense Red Sea Corniche. From my window I can see the world’s tallest fountain playing to an empty gallery.
I try to focus on the job in hand. Trees in Jeddah? Well, according to my pathetic last minute internet research there is only one tree in Jeddah – at the famous Bayt Nassif. It (the bayt, that is) was built, so my browser tells me, in the 1870s by a local worthy, Sheikh Umar Effendi al-Nassif, and was called “The House with the Tree” because it was the only house that had one. This seems strange. It’s as though palm trees – all 2600 species of them – were only invented in the twentieth century, or were late arrivers in Jeddah, a city dating back to 500BCE…
The AC unit hums, and my mind wanders. A neem tree?…Apparently the Scouts have planted 30,000 mangrove trees on a Jeddah beach…I wonder how much space 30,000 mangroves need, and whether they start life above or below the waterline…and will there be room left for the deck-chairs?
It’s not as though Saudi Arabia lacks trees. The Kingdom has 97 species, compared to just 39 British natives – trees, that is, not wanderers in Panama hats. But then again this country is the size of Western Europe (yes – truly: Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy combined). And Jeddah has many thousands of trees now – noticeably far more than arid Riyadh.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Whenever Muslims plant a tree, they will earn the reward of charity because of the food that comes from it; and likewise what is stolen from it, what the wild beasts eat out of it, what the birds eat out of it, and what people take from it is charity for them.”
And Jeddah’s devout – with Mecca just 50 or so miles up the road – have clearly been following his advice. But it lacks iconic trees: no London Planes or Beijing Ginkgos here, no Cedars of Lebanon or Jacarandas of Pretoria. No Ljubljana Locusts or Flame trees of Thika.
…A Neem tree? The oldest tree in Jeddah? Two minutes on the internet and I’ve uncovered a genus new to me (no.557 for me) and two new species, including the Neem , or Indian Lilac, just a few streets from the cool of my hotel room.
Azadirachta indica – a fast grower that can reach a height of 20 meters, sometimes over 30. In Swahili it’s known as “Muarubaini” – the tree of forty, said to treat 40 different diseases. Mosquitos, head lice and psoriasis all flee before it. A drought resistant wonder, a Bengali appetizer…
I grit my teeth, grab my camera and my battered panama…