Most nights, Mohammed El Rachidi takes his cobras and vipers to La place Jemâa el Fna in Marrakech, a throbbing tourist attraction in Morocco’s most colorful city. The story goes that the snakes rise from their baskets to the sound of the charmer’s flute, and mesmerized by the music, begin to “swoon.”
So far, the Green Prophet Moroccan experience has included Karin’s rocking two nights at the Kasbah du Toubkal, a stunning eco-resort in the Atlas Mountains, and my ungraceful summit of the highest point in North Africa. A must see on every Lonely Planet reader’s list, I’ve resisted looking too closely at the so called snake charmers, mostly because the ancient “art” has such a long and romantic history that I’m reluctant to give a negative glow. Alas, the pursuit of truth prevails.
Dancers in the night
Egyptian Cobras found in North Africa are typically nocturnal. They would sooner die than be seen in the middle of a heavily trafficked tourist den. Knowing this, it seemed obvious that the snakes and their charmers would have a dodgy story. Last night, I set out to figure out what that might be.
With my large camera, I’m far from discreet, so I knew that I would have to pay for my cobra photo session and I also knew that it would have to go quickly. There would be many people around, and my charmer would want to move on to more “clients.”
A bystander, Mr Mustapha Elessaoui, was called over to translate for me. Only since I’ve been in Morocco have I questioned whether taking Spanish during college was better than French. As he bent down to write his name in my notebook, a harmless water snake popped out of his other hand. Everyone look disgusted at me for squealing my surprise.
We negotiated my price, which was just over $1 at MAD 10. Maybe they thought I would only take one photo. I took more, though, because El Rachidi insisted on provoking the snake to make it stretch its hood, a defensive posture achieved by spreading the ribs located in the neck under elastic skin, which blurred my already poorly-lit images.
The snake barely responded. Like the lion that the Egyptian man bored to tears with his “heroic fight,” the cobra didn’t appear to have much energy for a fight, much less dancing.
A tour guide with a major European company, Mostofa Mohandi explains that charmers “starve the snakes and then make them ‘dance’ by giving them food.” The snakes learn to associate the flute with the food, which is why, he says, they rise up when the music appears.
In order to make the snakes look less lackluster and lifeless, charmers wet them, Mohandi added. I did not see food, but the blankets were wet, and the vipers looked like they were full of valium for the amount of interest they showed.
Face to venomous face
Mere steps away from the café Argana that was blown up by terrorists in April earlier this year, El Rachidi doesn’t even bother to entertain with the flute. For my measly fee, he swiped at the cobra a few times with a water snake but quickly lost interest and left me to my own devices.
Every so often another man would emerge at the mat with a snake wrapped around his neck, each time startling me out of my professional cool. But I needn’t have worried.
Probably, like other charmers, El Rachidi has removed the fangs and sewed the snakes’ mouths shut in order to keep himself from being bitten. This seemed too complicated to approach with my limited language skills, but I had read The Truth Behind Snake Charming beforehand and hoped to goodness it was accurate when I put my face within one meter of a creature whose venomous powers deserve grave respect.
Unlike the Emirati penchant to import illegal animals such as Cheetahs and keep them as pets, Essaoui says that both the cobras and vipers come from the Moroccan section of the Sahara desert. However, there is no sentimental connection between the charmed and charmer. When these snakes are no longer useful, they will be tossed aside and replaced with others.
Most people are familiar with the snake charmers of India, which has banned individual ownership of reptiles. But owning and wooing them is still very much legal in Morocco, where, as a source of income and a tourist attraction, the practice is likely to continue for a long time.
More travel and nature stories from Morocco:
images via Tafline Laylin