The Appointment in Samarra
Somerset Maugham (W.)
Source: W. Somerset Maugham - Sheppy
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    ‘There was a merchant in Bagdad 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 threating 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 Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
    → As retold by W. Somerset Maugham [1933]

  1. I first came across this famous tale in Chapter 2 of "Dennett (Daniel) - The Intentional Stance", ie. "Dennett (Daniel) - True Believers: The Intentional Strategy and Why it Works", where it’s used as an introductory quotation, under the heading “Death Speaks”.
  2. Having said it’s famous, ... because it’s so short, I’ve not been able to find it in the TOCs of the 4 volumes of Somerset Maugham’s Short Stories.
  3. I’ve now discovered that it comes from Somerset Maugham’s play Sheppy (see Wikipedia: Sheppy, which contains a full quotation).
  4. Otherwise, the only reference I could find (apart from its use as the title of the novel "O'Hara (John), Massie (Allan) - Appointment in Samarra", chose after the author was referred to Somerset Maugham’s play) is here: Kansas State U: The Appointment in Samarra (as retold by W. Somerset Maugham [1933]), which has the full text and a link to a brief study guide (Lyman A. Baker - Study Guide to 'The Appointment in Samarra').
  5. The story is well told, don’t you think? Somerset Maugham has a way with words. I wrote a commentary on a volume of Somerset Maugham’s Short Stories for my blog (here1).
  6. I see from the Wikipedia: W. Somerset Maugham that ‘The Appointment in Samarra’ is an ‘ancient Babylonian myth’ and that ‘An older version of An Appointment in Samarra is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a’.
  7. It took a little while to track this down (The William Davidson Talmud: Sukkah 53a), but it seems the text is:-
      The Gemara relates with regard to these two Cushites who would stand before Solomon: "Elihoreph and Ahijah, the sons of Shisha" (I Kings 4:3), and they were scribes of Solomon. One day Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was sad. He said to him: Why are you sad? He said to him: They are asking me to take the lives of these two Cushites who are sitting here. Solomon handed them to the demons in his service, and sent them to the district of Luz, where the Angel of Death has no dominion. When they arrived at the district of Luz, they died. The following day, Solomon saw that the Angel of Death was happy. He said to him: Why are you happy? He replied: In the place that they asked me to take them, there you sent them. The Angel of Death was instructed to take their lives in the district of Luz. Since they resided in Solomon's palace and never went to Luz, he was unable to complete his mission. That saddened him. Ultimately, Solomon dispatched them to Luz, enabling the angel to accomplish his mission. That pleased him. Immediately, Solomon began to speak and said: The feet of a person are responsible for him; to the place where he is in demand, there they lead him.
  8. I was reminded of the story by an email from my friend Jack, who wrote:
    • “Other than that, with respect our current situation, I have to agree with you that what will be will be.
    • So with that in mind, I’d like to finish with a short story I was told 35 years ago when working in S. Arabia. This is as I remember it:-
      • A man walking idly in a busy Mecca bazaar suddenly locked eyes with a stranger.
      • The man was filled with terror when he recognised the stranger to be the Angel of Death, coming to collect his soul! But he was determined to escape and fled Mecca on his horse, riding for hours and stopping only as he reached Medina. He was exhausted and, upon finding an inconspicuous inn to rest for the night, he settled down and quickly fell asleep.
      • At midnight, the Angel of Death came to his room and the man awoke with a start, bewildered at seeing the Angel again! The Angel unfurled his eternal list, unchanged since time began, containing the time and place of each soul to be collected. The Angel was equally astonished to see the man, for was this not the same stranger the Angel had seen that very morning in Mecca?”

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