Appointment in Samarra
“Appointment in Samarra” is a literacy allusion to the last inescapable appointment with destiny. It derives from Middle Eastern folk tales, translated and made popular in English literature by Somerset Maugham with his play Sheppey (1933). My takes on this story are: (a) to value, protect and make the best of your time: the most valuable asset you have and (b) Inversion (the power of avoiding stupidity): whenever possible, anticipate potential pitfalls along your journey, and make sure to stay away from harmful outcomes.
A short story by Somerset Maugham
“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 Death standing in the crowd, and he went to her and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, Death 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”.
- The story was made popular by the English writer W. Somerset Maugham (1933), and it is based on middle eastern traditions.
- The Story was retold by John O’Hara in a book titled: “Appointment In Samarra”, published in 1934.
- The original story seems related to Prophet Solomon (or Sulaiman in Arabic), which is found in the Babylonian Talmud. A reference to the story is also found in Islamic literature. In all the three versions, however, the place to which the man goes is different; Samarra, the district of Luz, and India respectively in Maugham, Talmud, and Islamic literature’s version respectively. Here is a link to a blog post detailing these 3 versions.
- The investor Charlie Munger referred to a similar story in his June 13 1996, speech at Harvard (link).