August is the month when Geoffrey and I can catch up with friends. As we only had a few days free we each went our separate ways – Geoffrey to Madrid and Andalucia to visit some very dear friends and off I went to France and Italy to spend some days with my “gang”. Our friendship dates back to the year 1981/2 when we shared a house during our last year at Bristol University. Two boys and four girls. We celebrated our joint 60th birthday eating an interesting and delicious meal of polenta with anchovies, pasta, wild boar stew, tinned peas and “crostana” in a refuge high up in the Italian alps. One of the “boys”, Charlie, died about four years ago and while we played “up and down the river”, an Irish game of cards, between belly laughs and tears we remembered Charlie with much affection.
Having had such fun these days we have sworn to see each other more often as “you never know”. On my trip back as I was reading I came across an ancient Mesopotamian fable which made me reflect even more on the importance of appreciating and cherishing our friendships.
So I quote the words of Paul Anthony Jones from his book “Around the World in 80 Words):
Samarra is a city in central Iraq, just north of Baghdad on the River Tigris. It’s also one of the most ancient cities in the world: excavations there have unearthed artefacts dating back to 6000 BCE and for that reason it was elevated to a World Heritage Site in 2007. But that’s not its only claim to fame. Hidden away in the dictionary, the city sits at the heart of an expression, little known unless you’re familiar with ancient Mesopotamian fables: an appointment in Samarra. Once upon a time, a merchant in Baghdad sent his servant down to the local market to buy some provisions. The servant duly complied, and headed down to the busy marketplace–where he was promptly jostled to one side by a woman in the crowd. When he turned around to confront her, the servant saw that this was no ordinary woman who had stepped in his way, but Death, who now stood beside him, her mouth wide open, and her hand raised towards him in a seemingly threatening gesture. Instantly realising what he had done, the servant panicked and fled the marketplace leaving Death to watch on from the crowd. Returning to the merchant’s shop, the servant explained to his master all about his run-in with Death, and requested to borrow the merchant’s horse so that he could ride as far away from Baghdad as he could, as quickly as possible. The merchant agreed, and the servant took the horse from outside the store and rode off. After eighty miles, he arrived in the city of Samarra where, he presumed, Death would never be able to find him. With his servant now gone, the merchant was left to head down to the marketplace himself–and there, he spotted Death standing contemplatively among the crowd. But rather than flee, the merchant decided to confront Death about the threat she had made that had lost him the services of his servant. ‘I am sorry,’ Death explained, ‘but I did not threaten your servant. I was merely surprised to see him here in Baghdad–because I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.