Journal: Tuesday 14 March 2000
Jenny, who has a degree in Zoology, loves creatures of any sort and to my utmost horror, had persuaded Ibrahim to take us to see the snake charmer at his home in Luxor. Snakes come a close second to spiders in my list of phobias, so I’m not sure how I got talked into this, except that I’m always open to new experiences in Egypt. Well, most of them!
Ibrahim collected us from our hotel this morning and we went by taxi to a village on the eastern outskirts of Luxor. I really wasn’t sure what to expect when we left the taxi and began walking through the narrow streets of the village, along a narrow dirt road which ran between small mud-brick houses. The people who lived here obviously didn’t see many foreigners and from every doorway someone was peering out to catch a glimpse of us. We were followed at a distance by a crowd of raggedy children, not quite brave enough to approach us but curious enough to follow to see where we were going. Eventually we arrived at a very poor-looking house in the heart of the village and Ibrahim knocked on the open door. The snake-man could not have been more welcoming and seemed delighted that we should visit him here. We were ushered into the house, which seemed to consist of only two rooms, one where the family all slept and another opening off the street and where we were seated on long wooden benches. The snake-man didn’t speak English so Ibrahim acted as interpreter. This man is one of the snake-charmers who go around the hotels and cruiseboats entertaining tourists with his basket and flute and although I don’t like snakes, these men always have held a sort of fascination for me.
After we were brought glasses of tea and when the formalities were over, he brought out several small woven ‘Ali-Baba’ baskets. Placing the first basket in front of us he took off the lid and put his hand in to pull out a tangle of several cobras. I shivered and moved away horrified as he offered the writhing mass of bodies for me to hold. Jenny, much braver than I, took one of the snakes and sat gently stroking it on her lap as the snake-man, with Ibrahim interpreting, began talking about his cobras. The first thing he mentioned was that these snakes’ teeth had been removed – though he didn’t say how this was done and I thought it must be cruel. Cobras are among the most poisonous snakes here in Egypt with long hollow fangs in the upper jaw that can lock onto its prey and inject poison from its venom sacs like liquid from a hypodermic needle. A victim bitten by a cobra could be dead within a few hours. The snake-man does not catch the snakes himself, but buys them at great expense from a professional snake-catcher. He told us that because of their value, he takes great care of them. The fangs are removed after the snake has fed and it can go several weeks without needing to feed again. The teeth re-grow in a few days and I wondered at what stage of re-growth these snakes teeth were at. Just in case, I kept my distance, but Jenny was mesmerised by these glossy slithering reptiles. After a while the snake-man’s little son, a toddler, came out from the other room and picked up one of the snakes, shaking it around and holding it close to his face. It would seem that this is a family business.
In Egypt, snake charming is a very old form of entertainment. Cobras are the most popular snake used and as the charmer plays his pipes, the cobra rises from its basket and coiled in the recognisable upright posture, spreads its hood, ready to strike. The snake reacts to the movement of the charmer’s pipe, hypnotised and moving back and forth, looking like it is dancing to the music.
While this was all very interesting, I did not enjoy the visit. However much I dislike snakes, I don’t like to see creatures kept in captivity and I was sure that it couldn’t be humane to keep the snakes like this purely for the entertainment of tourists. Jenny however, with a much more scientific viewpoint, enjoyed meeting the snake-man and his cobras. I guess these people have to earn a living somehow.