Monday, 15 September 2014

Appointment in Samarra, on my father's birthday

One of the more shameful injustices of life is that my father missed reaching the age of 92, as he would have done this 15 September, by an unforgivable 31 years. 

Happy birthday!
If only you could share it with us
My father had a great many outstanding qualities, among which was his ability to tell stories. Many he would make up, long rambling picaresque rambles, starring my brother and me, that wandered aimlessly for hours without ever reaching a conclusion, but kept us mesmerised throughout. Excellent proof, if any were needed, that the journey matters far more than the destination.

At other times he would tell us anecdotes from his own life, about his wartime service in the Royal Air Force, or his time in various countries he visited, often places that would soon become trouble spots (not I hope due to his visit): the former Belgian Congo, Ethiopia, Afghanistan among others. The US, come to that.

The teller and (half) his audience
Though I think I was older when he told this story
And finally he would occasionally tell us tales by other people, and they were often no less fascinating for having a different author. One of my personal favourites was that of the Appointment in Samarra. It struck me from the outset as a perfect story: brief, immediately engaging for its premise, and with a devilish sting in the tail. It also makes an essential point about human life, specifically about human destiny, a point that has significance even if one believes that men, and not heaven, create their destinies.

In fact, that belief makes it if anything more powerful, since it illustrates how we contribute to our own fate.

The story has doubtless been told countless times. One elegant, succinct version comes from Somerset Maugham. 

So today, in tribute to my father on his birthday, here it is. In full.

Appointment in Samarra

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.

She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.

Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?

That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.


Anonymous said...

Excellent story. There's also a version by Nabokov, as you no doubt know.

David Beeson said...

Thanks. I certainly know now and must check it out