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The reversal of Maugham’s Samarra

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how British and American literature, a Talmudic tale and a Sufi teaching story conspire — twice — to illuminate current events in Iraq and Syria ]

Let’s start with Somerset Maugham‘s telling of the Appointment in Samarra, which John O’Hara borrowed as the epigraph of his novel by that name:

The speaker is Death

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 getsture 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.


Here’s the version of the same story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 53a:

R. Yohanan stated: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted. There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon (I Kings 4:3). One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was distressed. He asked him: Why are you distressed? He responded: They have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here. [Solomon] gave them over to the demons and sent them to the district of Luz. When they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was smiling He said to him: Why are you smiling? He responded: To the place where they expected them from me, there did you send them!’ Solomon immediately began to say: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted.


In February 2014 in the US Jewish magazine Forward, writer JJ Goldberg made fine use of this tale, applying it to a then-contemporary news event in his piece, Lesson of the Talmud in an Iraq School Suicide Bombing:

School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization. Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher. It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. [ .. ]

The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend.

After discussing the Talmudic and Maugham versions, Goldberg concludes:

Thus, the lesson of Samarra. In Arabic lore, we’re drawn helpless to our predestined deaths. In the Talmud, it’s kings who dispatch us with the best intentions to what they assume will be a cakewalk, but it’s we — or, per the Talmud, the king’s black soldiers — who do the dying.


The Afghan Sufi writer Idries Shah tells the story in his brilliant little book Tales of the Dervishes, under the title When Death Came to Baghdad:

The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.

“I have several calls to make in this city during the next three weeks,” the Angel was saying to his companion.

Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand.

Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various people. “And where is your disciple so-and-so?” asked Death.

“He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai,” said the teacher.

“Surprising,” said the Angel; “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is: I have to collect him in four weeks’ time at Samarkand, of all places.”

Shah attributes his telling thus:

This treatment of the Story of Death is taken from Hikayat-iNaqshia (Tales formed according to a design’).

The author of this story, which is a very favourite folklore story in the Middle East, was the great Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad, a former highwayman, who died in the early part of the ninth century.


All of which brings me to this Kurdish news story published yesterday, ISIS captive begs Peshmerga to kill him for 4 o’clock appointment

DUHOK, Kurdistan Region — An Islamic State (ISIS) militant caught in fighting near Mosul last week begged his Peshmerga captors to shoot him dead on the spot so he could reach paradise the same day, a frontline Kurdish soldier said.

“The militant’s own suicide vest had failed to explode but he had sustained injuries from his friends’ vest explosions,” Peshmerga Captain Salim Surchi of the Spilk base told Rudaw. “He kept saying, ‘kill me, you infidels kill me.’” Cpt. Surchi said the militant was captured by the Peshmerga during last week’s fighting in the Christian town of Tel Skof, 28km north of Mosul. The militant was eager to be killed on the spot because it was a holy Islamic day known as Isra an Mi’raj, the day that marks Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven as mentioned in the Koran. [ .. ]

Cpt. Surchi lost three of his close friends that day and had others wounded, he said, but he still rushed to help a wounded ISIS militant to save his life. “I was filming the dead ISIS with my cell phone when I saw one of them moving his leg and I placed my hands on his chest trying to help him breathe,” the Peshmerga commander said of the moment following the fighting. “He breathed heavily a few times, he was conscious and he could even speak,” he added. Cpt. Surchi said that despite the militant’s pleas to be shot dead, he went ahead and treated his leg wound.

“When I was treating him I asked, ‘where’re you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Samarra and came here for jihad.’ The militant then said, ‘We were 50 suicide bombers altogether and we wanted to be in paradise by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Cpt. Surchi recounted. [ .. ]

“The wounded one kept asking us to kill him till the end of the day.”

Which in turn brings us full circle. In Maugham’s telling, our traveller makes his way to Samarra to avoid death, who finds him there. In yesterday’s version, the jihadist leaves Samarra to meet his death, who refuses, on the night of all nights, to oblige him.

Ceylan Ozbudak notes a discrepancy from PKK [updated]

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — just another entry in the DoubleQuotes log ]

Another “DoubleQuote in the Wild” demonstrating re-use of materials from one, older context to make a point in another, current one:


Edited to add:

Hm, make that a DoubleTweet of DoubleQuotesCeylan pointed me to this one, too:

We’re a legacy industry in a world of start-up competitors

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Chautauqua ]

chautauqua haqqani daveed


From the outset, when cheers went up for Daveed’s birthplace, Ashland, Oregon, and Ambassador Haqqani’s, Karachi — and for the brilliant meeting of the minds that is Chautauqua — it was clear that we were in the presence of two gracious, witty and informed intelligences, and the seriousness of the conversation between them that followed did nothing to reduce our pleasure in the event. Daveed called it “easily the best experience I have ever had as a speaker.”

I’ll highlight some quotes from each speaker, with the occasional comment:

Amb. Haqqani:

None of the countries except Egypt, Turkey and Iran, none of the countries of the Middle East are in borders that are historic, or that have evolved through a historic process. And that’s why you see the borders a straight lines. Straight lines are always drawn by cartographers or politicians, the real maps in history are always convoluted because of some historic factor or the other, or some river or some mountains.

You’ll see how neatly this fits with my recent post on borders, No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

And now that whole structure, the contrived structure, is coming apart.

Then most important part of it is, that this crisis of identity – who are we? are we Muslims trying to recreate the past under the principles of the caliphate .. or are we Arabs, trying to unify everybody based on one language, or are we these states that are contrived, or are we our ethnic group, or are we our tribe, or are we our sect? And this is not only in the region, it’s also overlapping into the Muslim communities in the diaspora..


If Amb. Haqqani emphasized the multiple identities in play in the Arabic, Islamic, Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and tribal worlds in his opening, Daveed’s emphasis was on the failure of the post-Westphalian concept of the nation state.

Daveed G-R:

In the economic sphere there’s this thing that is often called “legacy industries” – industries that fit for another time, but are kind of out of place today. Think of Blockbuster Video, once a massive, massive corporation.. that’s a legacy industry. So when Ambassador Haqqani talks about how it’s not just in the Middle East that we have this crisis of identity, I think the broader trend is that the Westphalian state that he spoke about, the kind of state that was encoded after the Peace of Westphalia, looks to a lot of people who are in this generation of the internet where ideas flow freely, it looks like a legacy industry.

Why do you need this as a form of political organizing? And what ISIS has shown is that a violent non-state actor, even a jihadist group that is genocidal and implements as brutal a form of Islamic law as you could possibly see, it can hold territory the size of Great Britain, and it can withstand the advance of a coalition that includes the world’s most powerful countries including the United States. And what that suggests is that alternative forms of political organization can now compete with the nation state.


The Ambassador then turned to the lessons we should take from 1919’s US King–Crane Commission, reporting on the break-up of the Ottoman Empire — they concluded that it gave us

a great opportunity — not likely to return — to build .. a Near East State on the modern basis of full religious liberty, deliberately including various religious faiths, and especially guarding the rights of minorities

— down to our own times.

Amb. Haqqani:

What we can be sure of is that the current situation is something that will not be dealt with without understanding the texture of these societies. So for example, when the United States went into Iraq without full understanding of its sectarian and tribal composition, and assumed that, all we are doing is deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and then we will hold elections and now a nice new guy will get elected, and things will be all right -– that that is certainly not the recipe. So what we can say with certainty in 2015 is .. over the last century what we have learnt is: outsiders, based on their interests, determining borders is not a good idea, and should certainly not be repeated. Assuming that others are anxious to embrace your culture in totality is also an unrealistic idea.

The sentence that follows was a stunner from the Ambassador, gently delivered — a single sentence that could just as easily have been the title for this post as the remark by Daveed with which I have in fact titled it:

Let me just say that, look, he ideological battle, in the Muslim world, will have to be fought by the likes of me.

Spot on — and we are fortunate the Ambassador and his like are among us.


Daveed then turned to another topic I have freqently emphasized myself.

Daveed G-R:

The power of ideas – we as Americans tend not to recognize this when it falls outside of ideas that are familiar to us. So one thing that the US has been slow to acknowledge is the role of the ideology that our friend and ally Saudi Arabia has been promulgating globally, in fomenting jihadist organizations.

And one of the reasons we have been slow to recognize that. I mean one reason is obvious, which is oil. .. But another reason has been – we tend to think of ideas that are rooted in religion – as a very post-Christian country – we tend to think of them as not being real – as ideas which express an ideology which is alien to us –as basically being a pretext, with some underlying motivation which is more familiar to us. That it must be economics, or it must be political anger. I’m not saying those are irrelevant, they’re not – but when Al-Qaida or ISIS explains themselves, taking their explanation seriously and understanding where they’re coming from – not as representatives of Islam as a whole, but as representatives of the particular ideology that they claim to stand for – we need to take that seriously. Because they certainly do.


Amb. Haqqani:

The world is not a problem for Americans to solve, it’s a situation for them to understand.

This makes a nice DoubleQuote with Gabriel Marcel‘s more general aphorism:

Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.


Toward the end of the discussion, Daveed touched on some ideas of recurrent interest to Zenpundit readers..

Daveed G-R:

Looking at the US Government, questions that I ask a lot are: Why are we so bad at strategy? Why are we so bad at analysis? Why do we take such a short term view and negate the long term?

He then freturned to the issue of legacy industries and nation-states:

Blockbuster is a legacy industry. And the reason why legacy industries have so much trouble competing against start-up firms, is because start-ups are smaller, it’s more easy for them to change course, to implement innovative policies, to make resolute decisions – they can out-manoeuver larger companies. And so larger companies that do well adapt themselves to this new environment where they have start-up competitors. Nation-state governments are legacy industries. Violent non-state actors are start-up compoetitors.

— and had the final, pointed word:

We’re a legacy industry ina world of start-up competitors.


Having offered you these tastes, at this point I can only encourage you to watch the whole hour and a quarter, filled to the brim with incisive and articulately-stated insights:

The uses of sacred space: a DoubleQuote

Friday, December 5th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — these two tweets hopefully speak for themselves ]


and Merciful:


The world seems filled with these simultaneities of the gruesome and the glorious.

And what of man?

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no..

An interesting peek into the PKK

Monday, November 12th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — the PKK and religion, my own ignorance and curiosity ]

Flag of the Iraqi Kurds, not a PKK flag -- but see below...


The PKK is important in a “first cousin once removed” kind of way, if I’m understanding Karen Kaya‘s piece in SWJ this past May correctly:

As Turkish military and government officials often say, the PKK is to Turkey what Al-Qaida is to the U.S., or that “the PKK is Turkey’s Al-Qaida.”


So I was trawling the web today, and the mention of religion in this paragraph from McClatchy caught my eye:

Volunteers who join the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey must abandon Islamic religious practice and must forego “emotional ties” to anyone outside the group, as well as swear words and sex, or face trial and prison, according to a Syrian-born Kurd who defected from the group to Turkey over the summer.

People who “defect” not uncommonly offer prejudiced accounts of the organizations they’ve left, so I read on to see how trustworthy this source might be:

The 21-year-old defector, who surrendered in June, brought with him not only a tale of life inside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, but also detailed information about a planned attack inside Turkey that helped Turkish authorities beat back the PKK offensive.

McClatchy obtained a copy of a 19-page Turkish-language account of his debriefing, which was dated July 4 and was not marked classified. The debriefing contained his name, but McClatchy is identifying him only by his initials, R.S., to protect family members who might still be in territory held by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.

It seems his military intelligence was quite accurate — so far so good. Next, my own curiosity naturally led me to wonder what the PKK’s religious stance, apart from being opposed to Islam, might be. After all, it’s called the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and was founded on Marxist principles…

Okay, I skipped a few paragraphs, and found this:

R.S. portrayed the PKK as anti-Islamic. Performing daily prayers, fasting and reading the Quran are among the offenses that could land a recruit in prison, he told Turkish authorities. Instead, fighters were told that the religion of Kurds is Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s most ancient religions, and they should worship fire. There are said to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, mostly in Iran and India.

Now that’s a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain.


For an alternate viewpoint, here’s the University of Utrecht grad student in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, writing for Rudaw in English and sounding knowledgeable, though his own or Rudaw’s potential biases are unknown to me:

The idea that Kurds are actually Zoroastrians is not something new. Kurdish nationalists such as the Bedirkhan brothers tried to revive Zoroastrianism and Yezidism as the original religion of the Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s. By this the Bedirkhans aimed to separate the Kurds from their Muslim neighbors and give them a glorious pre-Islamic history that had once boasted many empires.

They did not emphasize much on the Kurdish Islamic warrior Salahadin al-Ayyubi that rallied the Muslims against the crusaders in the twelfth century. Similarly, Turkish nationalists tried to promote Shamanism as the original religion of the Turks. But despite these efforts, Islam remained an important element among Kurdish nationalist movements.

It is unlikely that Yezidis are originally Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian religion is a dualist religion (with good and evil constantly fighting each other), while the Yezidi faith revolves more around a single deity as the Satan.

Therefore it is possible that the Zoroastrians would regard the Yezidis as devil-worshippers, just as some Muslims do.

There are still many Kurds (especially in Europe) who think Kurds are originally Zoroastrians and wear Zoroastrian symbols, even though they are non-religious and do not have much knowledge about Zoroastrianism and its rituals.

The PKK was particularly influenced by the ideas of early Kurdish nationalists. Its media promoted the idea that Kurds are originally Zoroastrians. Other Kurdish political groups also came under the same influence.

But in 1991 the PKK took a positive approach about Islam and thus managed to win some sympathy. Some say the PKK tried to merge Kurdish nationalism and Islam for its own cause.

In recent years the PKK has also used Imams, Friday prayers and Islamic language as a means to compete with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In return, the Turkish government is said to have plans to recruit 1000 Kurdish Imams in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people.


That (Iraqi) Kurdistan National Flag at the top of this post has a golden sun with 21 rays as it’s central feature — but it’s from Iraq. The PKK has used a variety of flags, some of them reflecting the group’s Marxist origins, but one in particular appears to borrow from the Iraqi flag:

As noted on this Flags of the World page:

This seems to be a variant of the original PKK flag, since it has the star and the red background of the PKK original flag but also the sun disc of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.

That, in brief, is why the symbolism of the Iraqi Kurdish flag may be significant in understanding symbolism associated with the PKK.

The Kurdistanica page on the Iraqi Kurdish flag is a little coy on the topic of the sun, noting:

The primary Kurdish characteristic of the flag is the golden sun emblem at the center. The sun emblem has a religious and cultural history among the Kurds, stretching into antiquity. The sun disk of the emblem has 21 rays, equal in size and shape. The number 21 holds a primary importance in the native Yazdani religious tradition of the Kurds.

The sun might also be associated with Zoroastrianism, and the number 21 with the 21 nasks of the original Zoroastrian scriptures — but the issue of Kurdish religious nationalism is another area I’m unfamiliar with…


The nice thing about knowing that one doesn’t know is that it makes leaping to conclusions so much more difficult.

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