The Slippers of Abu Kasem

A Great Tale About a Miser During the Abbasid Caliphate

To begin with, Abu Kasem was a notorious miser, and his slippers were a disgrace. At the same time, these slippers came back to haunt him. Just when he made a particularly astute business deal, buying a huge consignment of little crystal bottles as well as a large amount of attar of roses with which to fill them. It was time to do something for himself, so he decided to show up at the public baths. In Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil, the following paragraph appears:

In the anteroom, where the clothes and shoes are left, he met an acquaintance, who took him aside and delivered him a lecture on the state of his slippers. He had just set these down, and everyone could see how impossible they were. His friend spoke with great concern about making himself the laughingstock of the town; such a clever businessman should be able to afford a pair of decent slippers.

When he returned from his bath, Abu Kasem could not find his disgraceful slippers. Instead he found a new pair that looked quite classy. They were, because they belonged to the Cadi of Baghdad, who had arrived at the baths a few minutes after Abu Kasem. Thinking they were a gift from his friend who read him the riot act over his old slippers, he appropriated them for himself. When the Cadi returned for his slippers, he found only Abu Kasem’s old, disgraceful pair.

Naturally, everyone knew who those belonged to. Abu Kasem was sent for and was found with the incriminating property on his feet. He was imprisoned and heavily fined, but he was given his old slippers back.

Here begins a series of attempts by Abu Kasem to throw out the old slippers, but they always kept coming back. And at each step of the way, Abu Kasem wound up paying heavily for damages of various kinds. At the last of these episodes, Zimmer writes:

Before he tottered home from the court, a broken man, he raised the unlucky slippers solemnly aloft, and cried with an earnestness that all but reduced the judges to hysterics: “My lord, these slippers are the fateful cause of all my sufferings. These cursed things have reduced me to beggary. Deign to command that I shall never again be held responsible for the evils they will most certainly continue to bring upon my head.” And the Oriental narrator closes with the following moral: The Cadi could not reject the plea, and Abu Kasem had learned, at enormous cost, the evil that can come of not changing one’s slippers often enough.


Serendipity: Raven Brings Death to the World

Tlingit Myth: Raven Swallowing the Sun

Now that I have resolved to explore the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia, I have become interested in the many native peoples along the route. And also that means I have a renewed interest in Franz Boas, who spent so much of his career studying the Kwakiutl, the Tlingit, the Bella Coola, the Salish, and others. From Boas’s (edited) Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes (1917) comes this tale, from the Nicola Valley, of how death came into this world:

Coyote was travelling, and came to Raven, a bad, selfish chief, who wanted to make everything difficult for other people, and easy for himself. He wanted the game for himself, wanted long winters, and he did not want man to be immortal. Coyote questioned him as to why he wanted people to die. He said, “If people were immortal, there would be too many. Let them become sick and die.” Coyote said, “Why should they die? Death will introduce sorrow into the world, and sorrow is very hard. If they die, what will become of them? Where will they go? Let them be sick, but not die.” Raven said, “No, they must die. I do not wish our enemies to live forever. If the people should become too numerous, there would be no food, and they would be hungry. It is better for them to die.” Raven’s people supported their chief, and clamored for the people to die. Raven, Crow, Fly, Maggot, and many others wanted people to die, so that they might feed on corpses. Coyote said, “Let people die for a while, and then come back to life again. Let death be like sleep.” Raven said, “No, if they die, let them die for good, and let their bodies rot.” At last Coyote agreed, and said, “Well, it is ordained that people shall die when their time has come. Their bodies shall be buried, and their souls shall go to spirit-land; but this will only be until the world changes again, when they will die no more.”

Shortly after that, Raven’s daughter became sick and died. She was the first to die. Raven tried to restore her to life, but failed. Then he wept because of his daughter. He went to Coyote, and said, “Let us change what we said before. Do not let people die and remain dead forever. Let us change it!” Coyote answered, “No, it is settled now, and cannot be altered.” Thus it happens that people die and are buried.