Abu Kasem is perfectly happy until he takes the wrong pair of slippers from the bathhouse. He takes the Cadi’s beautiful slippers because he’s quick to assume that the other merchant, who actually chastised Abu about his shoes, honored him with the gift of a fine, new pair of slippers in recognition of his business acumen. Abu felt that he deserved a continuous string of little gifts of good fortune, like the acquisition of the crystal bottles and the rose oil. His continuous good fortune was proof that he was right.
The mistake in the bathhouse sets the rest of the story in motion. Perhaps someone played a trick on Abu and moved his slippers. We don't really know. But the fact that the Cadi's servants found the nasty slippers so easily suggests that Abu was ready for a new pair of slippers but he wasn't yet ready for a new sense of self. That slip, which revealed the height (or depth) of his delusion, put something powerful in motion.
Abu tries to rid himself of the slippers four times. First he tosses them out of a window. The slippers have become an embarrassing and somewhat costly inconvenience. Throwing the slippers out of the window takes little thought or effort and Abu takes no care to see where they land. But the slippers will not be dismissed so easily. When they come sailing back through his window his bottled rose oil venture comes to an end.
Then Abu buries the slippers but they are mistakenly imagined by the neighbor to be a treasure. And until very recently, they were Abu’s most cherished possession.
At this point, Abu get serious. The slippers are dangerous. He resolves to take the slippers out of town and submerges them in a pond (often a metaphor for the unconscious) but they clog up the pipes that serve the whole community. Abu’s miserliness has poisoned everyone. Again he receives the only punishment that would impress him. The antics of the slippers costs him a great deal of money.
Now desperate, Abu plans to burn the slippers. The introduction of fire signals a move to complete and irreversible transformation. We see how his commitment to destroy the slippers grows. Each plan requires more conscious intention and involvement then the one preceding. But Abu doesn’t get to realize this plan. Why is he foiled at this point, do you think? Is it possible that he needs to become just a little more frightened, and humble?
There are numerous variations of this story and several different endings. In another version of the story, Abu is required to take the slippers home, where he carefully stashes them in a closet and goes out to buy new slippers for himself and a whole bunch of other people. The display of a newly found generosity pushes the moral message about greed. While that is important, I prefer to focus on the larger idea that Abu’s error was his unwillingness to relinquish, at the proper time, a public mask and idea about himself that was not useful. Avarice is only one of the mistakes that we can make in this regard.
The ending that I chose strikes an ambiguous note. Abu appeals to the judge to release him from further responsibility for the slippers and the judge does so. Abu buys himself a new pair of slippers. There is no heroism. The judge presumably saves Abu and we don’t know the extent of the judge’s power. We don’t know what happens to the tricky old slippers either. Are they still powerful? Do they glow in that closet or are they merely a worn bundle of cloth and leather? Do they stay in the closet forever?
We need to be able to escape the slippers. We need to be able to change. But do we bring this about through our own determination and courage or are we assisted by outside forces? We’ll think about this question in our next post about Abu Kasem’s slippers.