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Aug 22, 2006

Eu -- bloody -- reka!

As I've said rather repeatedly here at Cliopatria, I am preparing the essays, sermons, and speeches of Vernon Johns for publication. Because he was widely read, the experience of annotating his surviving documents has been a fresh education in western thought, from Aristotle and biblical literature through the 19th and early 20th century Anglo-American poets. Occasionally, however, I come across a piece that resists my most dogged efforts. Here, for example, is a passage from his last sermon,"The Romance of Death" (1965):
An Oriental servant was sent by his master to the bazaar to buy provisions. While he was in the marketplace, he saw a woman in pale robes who symbolized death. In hysterics, he ran home to his master and begged for his fleetest horse that he might ride far away to distant Samarkand, beyond the dreaded threat. When he was gone, the master went to the bazaar and he saw this lady attired in pale robes and he asked her, ‘Why did you frighten my servant away?' And the woman said innocently, ‘I didn't frighten your servant away; at least I didn't mean to, because I have a date with him tonight in Samarkand.'

Ordinarily, in the annotations, I try to identify a source from which Johns is likely to have heard a story such as this. Failing that, I try to identify the" classical" source of reference from which the story derives.

I've been working on these Johns texts on and off for eight years and a source for this story had eluded me until last night. I was googling around with various combinations of words and came across reference to Tonight in Samarkand, a melodrama by the French playwright Jacques Deval and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. It had a month's run on Broadway in 1955. The cast included Theodore Bikel, Louis Jourdan, Pernell Roberts, and Alexander Scourby. Deval's play, Tonight in Samarkand, A Romantic Melodrama in Three Acts, was also published in 1956. Time's review (28 Feb ‘55) piqued my curiosity:

Tonight in Samarkand (by Jacques Deval and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) takes its theme from the famous Oriental legend—about the inevitability of fate—that also suggested John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra.

If the"Oriental legend" was so bloody"famous," why couldn't I track down a source for it? Was it an authentically"Oriental" legend? Or, was it a western, let's play Levantine, invention?

But, quickly now, more googles and I had the core of my footnote:

The form in which Johns tells this story is close to Death's speech in W. Somerset Maugham's Sheppey: A Play in Three Acts (1933):
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 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 Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
It was later used as a preface to John O'Hara's first and most successful novel, Appointment in Samarra (1934). Maugham may have worked from an English translation of"When Death Came to Baghdad" from an Arabic text, Hikyat-I-Naqshia, by the ninth century Arabian Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad. He, in turn, may have recorded the story from a long oral tradition. A somewhat similar tale appeared centuries earlier in the Talmud, Sukkah 53a. After Maugham and O'Hara, other works such as Jacques Duval's Tonight in Samarkand: A Romantic Melodrama in Three Acts (1955/56), Johns'"The Romance of Death" (1965), and Tim Bridwell's film,"Rendezvous in Samarkand" (1999), substituted Samarkand for Samarra as destiny in the epicenter of middle eastern exoticism.

So, there you have it. The footnote isn't finished, of course. I have to go to the library and check the texts to verify the references. But, now, I know what texts to check and the finished form of the footnote will almost certainly look very much like this.

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More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 8/22/2006

Thanks very much, Tim. I'm happy to be introduced to Google Answers, which I've never used before. Leli-Ga does, indeed, have a lot of good information.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/22/2006

A year or more ago, you and I exchanged e-mail about it.

Manan Ahmed - 8/22/2006

I am pretty sure the tale is in Sa'di's Bustan. Will check and email you. I coulda sworn we had a discussion of this on HNN before [the story, i.e.]

Timothy James Burke - 8/22/2006

Whomever ("Leli-Ga") provided that answer at Google Answers did good scholarly work. I hadn't really looked much at Google Answers before.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/22/2006

Yes, Solomon and the Cushites. I know. I long suspected that the story came from the Arabian Nights, but I couldn't find it there or _any_ pointers to it being there. If any of Cliopatria's readers know about other sources, including one in the Arabian Nights, I'd be very happy to hear about it.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/22/2006

Is the Talmudic version you found the story of Solomon and the Cushites? That's the only version I seem to have in my folklore collection.

I've heard versions of that story for years; I always thought it was from the Arabian nights, but that book stole material from all over the world.