• There are three types of people in the world, those who don't know what's happening, those who wonder what's happening and those on the streets that make things happen.

A Beautiful Short Story: The Appointment in Samarra

Posted by Raunak Mahajan on September 23, 2012

This story appeared as an epigraph for the novel, “Appointment in Samarra” by John O’Hara. It is W. Somerset Maugham’s retelling of an old story. First, here’s an interesting historical fact about the meaning of Samarra. Medieval Islamic writers believed that the name “Samarra” is derived from the Arabic phrase “Sarra man ra’a”, which translates to “A joy for all who see”. Later when the city declined the name changed to “Sa’a man ra’a”, which translates to “A sadness for all who see”. Eventually the two names merged to its current form Samarra. (credit : Wikipedia)

The Appointment in Samarra

“A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, he flees at top speed to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles, where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, “That was not a threatening gesture, 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.”

A beautiful tale from a magical and mystical land. Alas, what have we done to Mesopotamia!

13 Responses to “A Beautiful Short Story: The Appointment in Samarra”

  1. Gasbagger said

    In what work does Maugham retell this story?


  2. it is written. 🙂

    • Raunak said

      Vanessa, I so believe in fate. In fact, my belief in Karma has driven my passion for learning and practicing Vedic Astrology. It was the missing link in my logical reasoning of reconciling Karma and God.

  3. Indeed in vaim do we try to escspe our fate…
    I agree with you on that: What we have done to Mesopotamia…

  4. In “vain”

  5. Is it really “we”, or the proponents of Fundamental Radicalism that have changed the course of Islam and its beautiful ways? Will we ever go back to the spirit of religion and not the words?

    • Raunak said

      John, I think that most changes that we see in Islamic countries are political and not religious. Vested economic and political interests have forced the exploited to rise against their enemies, both within and without.
      When a Palestinian attacks an Israeli, it is not necessarily a Muslim attacking a Jew, but a person who considers Palestine his motherland attacking a person who he thinks has built his own state on it. Unfortunately, the media projects it as a fight between a Muslim and a Jew.
      The Afghans fought the Russians not to protect Islam but to protect their sovereignity and freedom.
      People who do not have the military might to face their strong enemies find their biggest motivation in religion. The people of Palestine, Afghanistan etc. seem like religious fundamentalist because they fight in the name of their God. But the reason they do that is that only feeling close to God can they fight a political enemy that is so much more strong than they are.
      The unintended side effect of fighting one’s political battle in the name of God is that once the battle is won, people forget to separate God from politics. This has led to the corruption of the beautiful ways of Islam.

      • Gasbagger said

        I am late getting back on this, but more about that later.

        One thing that must be taken into account when it comes to evaluating Islam. In the West a separation of Church and State is a paradigm; it is in our psyche automatically; we assume it. This battle was under way all throughout the early stages of the Church and Middle ages.

        It was the somewhat hidden theme in T.S. Elliots, “Murder in the Cathedral.” Henry 2 was trying to remove his subjects from being subject to the Clergy of the Church. The Clergy was holding courts of their own and taking property from land owners. Henry, and I agree with him, felt that property and civil matters were the business of the State and Spiritual matters only, belonged to the Church.

        Becket, who was assissinated, believed that everything should come under the domain of the Church. Of couse that lead to the wide spread practice of investiture and consequences because anything they did automatically was under the authority of the highest authority. But, the West, due to a better understanding of Scripture and with Christian princiles as a guide, broke away from the concept.

        It took centuries for that to completely formulate and in fact we still are addressing it today. Over the centuries there have been degrees of separation and revolt to better refine this concept. Then the American Revolution set a pretty good model for a “more perfect” union (balance).

        This concept, however, has now gotten perverted. The nation cannot stand without a moral base that is independent of the influences of State. It must work the other way around. What we have now is mankind thinking he is capable of determining what is moral apart from God. This leads to relativism, which is exactly what the account of a depraved nation as recorded in the Book of Judges tells us. The last verse in Judges, “And each man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And Israel fell.

        If you can just view the big picture from a historical sense it all becomes clear and the hand of God is clearly at work. I think this is why we have the written word.

        Turning to Islam, they have never had this enlighted approach. Islam does not allow for it. The concept of Islam is still the same as it always was and that is that all things, including seculare government, must be under the dominion of Islam. You don’t separate politics or State from religion. They are one in the same.

        The concept makes sense, just as it did for Becket and the Church in the Middle Ages and before, but it igonres the absolute depravity of man and the human condition, prone to corruption.

        Consequently, in Islam you have no tolerance for others or other ideas. It is their way or the highway, or more accuately, off with your head. The lack of reasoning and objectivity is why they are still barbaric.

        And unlike the Bible in the Middle Ages, the Koran does not provide a good example for behavior. It justifies, even in a current day, more civilized world, violence as a solution.

        The word “peace” is minimal in the Koran, but “killing” is abundant. It is not a religion of peace, not by a long shot.

        To your comment about the beauty of Islam, what would that be? I’m just curious where you have found that beauty. I am not saying that there are no such passages, but I am just not seeing them or seeing them practiced.

        I do like the mysical, musical and enchanting sound of their daily prayers. I also like the sound of a Gregorian Chant, but I think neither are anything more than a demonstration of emotions.

        Sorry for any spelling issues here. I cannot find spell check; I have forgotten how to use WordPress effectively, but again, more on that later.

      • Raunak said

        Great to hear your thoughts 🙂 Thank you very much for such an informative and thought provoking comment.

        I do agree with you regarding the nature of Islam and its Scripture in contrast with Christian literature.Koran does indeed intertwine religion with state. Somewhere, it ceases to preach a spiritual message and transforms into a treatise on how society should act like.
        What I find beautiful about Islam are its rituals. The sound of the Quran is mystical and because of the phonetic beauty of the text, it is encouraged to be read aloud. This combined with the communal prayers held everyday make it a pleasure to watch. The rhythm, both in the sound of the Quran and the movements of the worshipper is something to behold.
        Then again, these rituals, I think, have more to do with the cultural practices of the Middle East (old pagan religions) and less with Islam itself.

  6. Reblogged this on Slightly Aloof and commented:
    This is my favourite short story. It’s simple and it’s eerie – and death is personified as female

  7. Anonymous said


  8. Eleanor said

    Death is the narrator but not omniscient. What clues in the story lead you to believe that Death cannot see everything? Why is this significant

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