A Desert Encounter: Serpent and Writer

In a hotly contested corner of the Sahara, not all of the dangers stem from war

The sun set as it always does over the desert: bathing the earth in its molten glow, then leaving a band of orange and ruby red above the western horizon, then giving way completely to the bright point of Venus.

We continue driving for several hours in the cool night air, crossing the unmarked border out of Algeria and entering the desert of the contested Western Sahara, where soldiers of the Polisario Front have long struggled with Moroccan forces.

After midnight we stop, witnessed only by a quarter moon, a canopy of stars and the Milky Way - the cross-section of our own galaxy that is dazzling in its brightness.

My guide, driver, and I wash our hands, splashing the trickle of water from a jug, then lay our blankets down in the sand. Both Muslims, the men kneel and pray for the last time this day.

"Il-Hamdulilah," exhorts the driver, Mohammed, arms crossed upon his chest. "Thanks be to God."

We settle to sleep, alone in the desert. But within minutes Ibrahim hears the quiet rush of the snake across the sand, his eye catching its flash in the moonlight.

The snake is already at arm's length, coiled to strike and filled with lethal venom. With a mottled back, it is called the "horned" snake here because its long lower fangs protrude menacingly like horns above its head.

For the desert Bedouin, whose five-times-a-day Islamic obeisances to God include acceptance of any fate chosen by Him, this is a bad sign.

We keep the snake at bay with a flashlight while searching for stones, then fire off several well-aimed barrages.

Our tension eases slightly, but there are many more hours of darkness, and we are tired. They say the snake had come after the smell of water, so Mohammed sprays gas from the fuel filter into the sand to keep other snakes away.

Mohammed has a kind face with a blunt nose and ready smile. He has been fighting with the Polisario Front for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco for years, and lost his big toe and one or two others to a mortar blast just days before the cease-fire in 1991.

When I point out that the snake attacked immediately after his final prayer, his unshaven face breaks into a deep and noisy laugh.

We settle again into our blankets on the sand, and sleep fitfully. The moonlight is gone, so we won't be able to see another snake now - just hear it.

As the stars dim and first light paints the eastern horizon, Mohammed collects bits of long-dead trees for a fire. As flames lick forth, he prepares to make tea, another act accorded sacred status in this region of the Sahara Desert.

IN the morning light that has dawned like a blessing, our war story is retold around the fire. The fears of the night have vanished, and we all laugh that Mohammed's prayers seem to have invited the snake.

Other stories are also recounted. Ibrahim fought with Polisario for years, too, and remembers a woman soldier who had a snake, attracted to the sweat on her leg, crawl into her trousers. She caught it by the head, and other guerrillas had to cut off her pants with a knife to kill it.

"You can't show fear, or the snake will expect an attack," he says, finishing his third glass of tea. "You must have the same cold blood of a snake to do that."

We roll our blankets into the truck, and Ibrahim steps away. "I'm going to pray, to thank God that we are safe," he says.

"I already did, my friend," I respond, "for all three of us."

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