Appointment in Samarra

Do we make our own Fate?

As citizens of the post-modern world, we don’t believe in Fate. Not really. We believe in things like free will, self-improvement, and the power of positive thinking. Henry Miller’s remark that “We make our own fortunes and call them fate,” has become a truism of our time.

So what do you do when something happens that stands as proof that we may be wrong? As proof that there is “a tide in the affairs of men” that seems to have a will of its own, that we are being carried along on a current apparently predetermined, and certainly controlled, by forces beyond our ken?

That’s how I felt the day I picked up the paper and read about Johanna and Kurt Ganthaler, the couple from South Tyrol, who had taken a couple of weeks in early summer to go on holiday in Rio de Janeiro, the grand and exotic former capital of the Portuguese empire. They were to fly home on June 1, on Air France Flt 447.

But something held them up, and they missed the flight. They were not among the 216 passengers and 12 members of the crew who died when the plane broke apart and plunged into the sea. As we now know, there were no survivors.

When the Ganthalers heard about the crash, they were flooded with relief. The gift of life had been given them once again. Euphoric, they returned to Europe by a later flight; landing in Munich and renting a car, they headed home.

Somewhere near Kufstein, husband Kurt apparently fell asleep at the wheel, swerved, and crashed head on into an oncoming truck. Johanna was killed almost instantly, and Kurt ended up in intensive care, fighting for what was left of his life.

It was an Appointment in Samarra – the fulfillment of an old allegory told by W. Somerset Maugham as the preface to a forgotten play he wrote in 1933. Somewhat condensed, it goes like this:

“There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions. Soon the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, ‘Master, just now when I was in the market-place and I saw Death looking at me with a threatening gesture; Lend me your horse, and I will ride away to Samarra and avoid my fate.’

So the merchant lent him his horse, and the servant rode away as fast as the horse could gallop. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace where he found Death standing in the crowd.

“Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant, when you saw him this morning?” he asked Death.

“That was not a threatening gesture,” Death replied, puzzled. “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.”

So is it all a coincidence? Or is Death waiting for us in the market place, to signal with a nod when our time has come? It is impossible to know. But maybe it doesn’t matter. What we do know is that there are so many things we cannot control, things that simply happen. And each day happens in the knowledge that a random act could mean the end of being – the unbearable lightness of what we are, know, have been or dream. What feels so vivid and concrete to us is in fact so ephemeral, worlds inside our heads that will vanish with our passing as if they had never been.

Our lives are like the footprints pressed into a firm wet beach at the water’s edge, that will vanish with the next tide. And the children who come the next morning to build their palaces of sand, digging elaborate moats that fill with the wash of salt water, will never know we have passed that way just the evening before – pairs of footprints separated by the space of holding hands, single prints of thought in solitude – all have long since vanished on the evening tide. And the beach that awakens with the sun is innocent once again, untouched and pristine when the children arrive with pail and shovel and floppy hats, slathered in sunscreen, ready for the new day.


“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
Ecclesiastes 9:11 

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