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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Appointment in Samarra

I was deeply affected by hearing about the destruction of the dome of the Al-Aksir mosque in Samarra, Iraq a few days ago, and after reading about it in Riverbend's weblog, "Baghdad Burning," and then also after reading about the quick upsurge in the violence in Baghdad and elsewhere that had already been at a level so high that I had long wondered how any country, and especially one as small as Iraq, could endure it. Could there be anything left in it to destroy?

One of the rationales for not taking the U.S. troops out of Iraq quickly has been the warning that to do so would open the way to a civil war in Iraq. But it seemed to me that that war had already started, and the bombing in Samarra only confirmed that hard fact.

Riverbend wrote very movingly about how she and some family members visited that mosque a few years ago, and she made it sound as if the structure was a true wonder in many respects, and in his weblog, "Raed in the Middle," though he is now living in the U.S., I think out of fear of being thoroughly messed up in some manner in Iraq, Raed wrote of how much of a landmark that mosque was, with its golden dome clearly visible from afar on the road from Baghdad to Mosul.

Finally I realized, somewhat startled, that, though I had barely heard of Samarra and had been completely ignorant of what was there, its name had actually been part of the background noise in my head for going on to 50 years! The reason for this is that countless times through that period my eye has brushed over the title of a little novel in my book collection: "Appointment in Samarra," by John O'Hara.

I don't know how well remembered John O'Hara is today, but in the 1950's he was regarded as being a major writer. However, he wasn't one of my favorite authors, and I have no memory of having read this book. I doubt that my wife, a voracious reader, has either, because the pages of this slim paperback, now turned brown and fragile by the years, are nevertheless still largely intact.

"Appointment in Samarra" was copyrighted in 1945, and I bought it soon after a 1957 reprinting. On hearing of the mosque bombing I was puzzled by the title, because I thought of O'Hara as placing all his stories in the U.S. and not in a locale like Iraq, which, in 1945, was somewhat more exotic than it is now. I had to thumb through the book for precisely one second to find the answer to that question. O'Hara started his story with a passage from W. Somerset Maugham, namely a little speech by the figure of Death. It was a very cool way for O'Hara to launch things and to get his title, but it is even more interesting because, though of course O'Hara and Maugham could have had no inklings of events in Iraq half a century later, we can still find meanings that relate to current happenings there, and with much the same degree of surprise to us as is expressed in the speech. Here is that passage in its entirety:

DEATH SPEAKS: 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 market-place, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw that 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 master 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 market-place 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 Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

I think we can say that recently that kind of astonishment and realization has applied to a lot of people, when it comes to Iraq.


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