THE VISITOR: A refreshing orange juice in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna
He throws his head back and finishes the contents in one gulp, thanking the vendor before strolling towards the heart of the square.
He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol, but here in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna, he feels intoxicated.
Noise rises like steam from every direction, mingled with smells of spices and meat and pastry and something worse, perhaps the monkey hopping from one foot to the other on a box to his left.
The air is still yet thick with life, and for just one second he closes his eyes and inhales deeply, attempting to absorb his incredible surroundings.
He zigzags through the crowds, shaking off the hand that grabs him by the ankle, promising to reveal his fortune.
He jumps aside to avoid an oncoming motorcycle, steps around a henna painter and almost crashes into the back of a tourist who’s stopped in her tracks, frozen in terror.
He follows her gaze, and his pulse quickens as he glimpses the cause of her fear.
Childhood memories engulf him like a rising tide. He’s mesmerised by the sleek, elegant silhouettes swaying gently to frenetic pipe music and syncopated drumming, sun glinting off their skin. Stepping closer, he’s stopped by a man, much older than he, with a sun-darkened face and white moustache.
He whistles his words through a missing front tooth, his accent thick. “You want a photo?” The visitor shakes his head, holding out a banknote.
“Not a photo. I want to touch one.”
“Which one?” He inspects the circle of dancing bodies, lithe and graceful, and points to one that captures his attention.
The local nods and speaks sharply to a younger man beside him, whose head is wrapped in a blue turban.
As he pockets his payment, the young man returns holding a cobra proudly in outstretched hands.
The visitor reaches out to stroke its cool, scaly back, tracing from head to tail.
“It’s been milked?” he asks.
The old man’s dark eyes are suspicious.
“Cobra is very dangerous,” he says knowingly.
Another pink note is passed between the men as the snake is draped across the visitor’s shoulders.
It lifts its head lazily, looking deep into the stranger’s eyes, frenzied tongue darting to taste the scent of its new captor.
The visitor feels a thrill of understanding as he holds its gaze, the movement across his shoulders otherworldly; familiar.
“We removed his fangs,” admits the performer. “But they don’t know. Watch.”
The old man doesn’t see the disgust in the visitor’s eyes as he lifts the snake away and surveys the crowd.
His eyes fall on a woman clinging fearfully to the man beside her, who’s brandishing his smartphone towards the cobras.
Winking mischievously, he flings the snake over her shoulders.
Her shriek is bloodcurdling, and as she turns to flee, the snake slips and falls to the ground with a thud.
The visitor walks away quickly, fists clenched, blood pounding at his temples.
At a café overlooking the square he sips hot, sweet tea, watching the charmers and their captives from above.
He squints through the glaring sunlight as a commotion suddenly erupts below, peering over heads that are bustling across the wide, dusty Djemaa el Fna.
A fight has broken out. The young man in the blue turban is wrestling a neighbouring snake charmer.
The visitor can’t help but smirk as the crowds part, screaming, to make way for the slithering deserters.
But his grin quickly drops as another figure catches his eye.
The old man with the missing tooth, who boasted of maiming his magnificent creatures to provide thrills for his audience.
He’s making his way through the mayhem, stopping to collect his snakes, along with the wallets of anyone within arm’s reach.
No one even notices their pockets getting lighter.
They’re too relieved that the serpents have returned to the care of their master. He seethes as the scene unfolds.
Cobras should be treated with respect.
His father, a man who believed in the purity of charming, who taught his son everything he knew, would be ashamed of these thieves, these men without honour.
As the man stirs his tea, an idea brews slowly.
Pleased with the success of his overnight journey into the Sahara, the man steps back into the chaos of Djemaa el Fna, body tingling in anticipation of success.
He reaches to pat the canvas bag slung over his shoulder, feeling the bulging shape at his hip. Breathing in the heady sensation of the square, he moves deeper into the throng, as he did yesterday and the day before.
The visitor spies a mistreated Cobra, and he wants to do something about it
He waits. He watches donkeys dragging heavy wooden carts, women bickering over the price of henna, balding monkeys straining on chains, men praying on mats facing the same direction.
And he waits. And finally, like clockwork, chaos erupts.
He watches the same two men performing their daily wrestling routine, and then the lightning-quick bodies appear, surging like liquid, pouring across the stones.
He reaches down, then delves his hand into his bag and with a flourish, steps into the path of the oncoming man with the missing tooth.
“Here,” he says, passing the onyx-black serpent over.
The man is surprised, but adds the snake to the collection draped across his shoulder.
The visitor spies the old man’s bulging pockets, spoils from the day’s performance, and moves away again quickly, swallowed by the crowd.
As he darts into the shaded souks, he hears a sickening wail, and he smiles, imagining the shock on the charmer’s face when he realises that his harmless prop has grown fangs.
The visitor, now lost in a maze of leather and rugs, taps his writhing canvas bag.
“You’re free now,” he whispers to the harmless escapee. His father would be proud.