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  • Writer's pictureAnca

Abu Kassem slippers

WHO knows the story of Abu Kasem and his slippers? The slip­pers were as famous—yea, proverbial—in the Bagdad of his time as the great miser and money-grubber himself. Everybody re­garded them as the visible sign of his unpalatable greed. For Abu Kasem was rich and tried to hide the fact; and even the shabbiest beggar in town would have been ashamed to be caught dead in such slippers as he wore—they were so shingled with bits and pieces. A thorn in the flesh and an old story to every cobbler in Bagdad, they became at last a byword on the tongues of the populace. Anybody wishing a term to express the preposterous would bring them in.

Attired in these miserable things—which were inseparable from his public character—the celebrated businessman would go shuffling through the bazaar. One day he struck a singularly fortunate bargain: a huge consignment of little crystal bottles that he managed to buy for a song. Then a few days later he capped the deal by purchasing a large supply of attar of roses from a bankrupt perfume merchant. The combination made a really good business stroke, and was much discussed in the bazaar. Anybody else would have celebrated the occasion in the usual way, with a little banquet for a few business acquaint­ances. Abu Kasem, however, was prompted to do something for himself. He decided to pay a visit to the public baths, a place where he had not been seen for quite some time.

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 laughing­ stock of the town; such a clever businessman should be able to afford a pair of decent slippers. Abu Kasem studied the mon­strosities of which he had grown so fond. Then he said: "I have been considering the matter for many years; but they are really not so worn that I cannot use them." Whereupon the two, un­ dressed as they were, went in to bathe.

While the miser was enjoying his rare treat, the Cadi of Bagdad also arrived to take a bath. Abu Kasem finished before the exalted one, and returned to the changing room to dress. But where were his slippers? They had disappeared, and in their place, or almost in their place, was a different pair—beautiful, shiny, apparently brand-new. Might these be a surprise present from that friend, who could no longer bear to see his wealthier acquaintance going around in worn-out shreds, and wished to ingratiate himself with a prosperous man by a delicate atten­tion? Whatever the explanation, Abu Kasem drew them on. They would save him the trouble of shopping and bargaining for a new pair. Reflecting thus, and with conscience clear, he quit the baths.

When the judge returned, there was a scene. His slaves hunted high and low, but could not find his slippers. I n their place was a disgusting pair of tattered objects, which everyone immediately recognized as the well-known footgear of A b u Kasem. The judge breathed out fire and brimstone, sent for the culprit and locked him up—the court servant actually found the missing property on the miser s feet. And it cost the old fellow plenty to pry himself loose from the clutches of the law; for the court knew as well as everyone else how rich he was. But at least he got his dear old slippers back again. Sad and sorry, Abu Kasem returned home, and in a fit of tem­per threw his treasures out of the window. They fell with a splash into the Tigris, which crept muddily past his house. A few days later, a group of river fishermen thought they had caught a particularly heavy fish, but when they hauled in, what did they behold but the celebrated slippers of the miser? The hobnails (one of Abu Kasem's ideas on economy) had ripped several gaps in the net, and the men were, of course, enraged. They hurled the muddy, soggy objects through an open win­ dow. The window happened to be Abu Kasem's. Sailing through the air, his returning possessions landed with a crash on the table where he had set out in rows those precious crys­tal bottles, so cheaply bought—still more precious now because of the valuable attar of roses with which he had filled them, ready for sale. The glittering, perfumed magnificence was swept to the floor, and lay there, a dripping mass of glassy fragments, mixed with mud.

The narrator from whom we receive the story could not bring himself to describe the extent of the miser's grief. "Those wretched slippers," Abu Kasem cried (and this is all that we are told), "they shall do me no further harm." And so saying, he took up a shovel, went quickly and quietly into his garden, and dug a hole there in order to bury the things. But it so hap­pened that Abu Kasem's neighbour was watching—naturally deeply interested in all that went on in the rich man's house next door; and he, as so often is the case with neighbours, had no particular reason to wish him well. "That old miser has serv­ants enough," he said to himself, "yet he goes out and personally digs a hole. He must have a treasure buried there. Why, of course! It's obvious!" And so the neighbour hustled off to the governors palace and informed against A b u Kasem; because anything that a treasure seeker finds belongs by law to the Caliph, the earth and all that is hidden in it being the property of the ruler of the faithful. Abu Kasem, therefore, was called up before the governor, and his story, that he had only dug up the earth to bury an old pair of slippers, made everybody laugh uproariously. Had a guilty man ever accused himself more glaringly? The more the notorious miser insisted, the more in­ credible his story became and the guiltier he seemed. In sen­tencing him, the governor took the buried treasure into account, and, thunderstruck, Abu Kasem heard the amount of his fine.

He was desperate. He cursed the wretched slippers up and down. But how was he to get rid of them? The only thing was to get them somehow out of town. So he made a pilgrimage into the country and dropped them into a pond, far away. When they sank into its mirrored depths he took a deep breath. At last they were gone. But surely the devil must have had a hand in it; for the pond was a reservoir that fed the town's water supply, and the slippers swirled to the mouth of the pipe and stopped it up. The guards came to repair the damage, found the slippers, and recognising them—as indeed who would not?—reported Abu Kasem to the governor for befouling the town's water supply; and so there he sat in jail again. He was punished with a fine far greater than the last. What could he do? He paid. And he got his dear old slippers back; for the tax collector wants nothing that does not belong to him.

They had done enough damage. This time he was going to get even with them, so that they should play him no more tricks. He decided to burn them. But they were still wet, so he put them out on the balcony to dry. A dog on the balcony next door saw the funny-looking things, became interested, jumped over, and snatched a slipper. But while he was playing with it, he let it fall down to the street. The wretched thing spun through the air from a considerable height and landed on the head of a woman who was passing by. She, as it happened, was pregnant. The sud­ den shock and the force of the blow brought on a miscarriage,Her husband ran to the judge and demanded damages from the rich old miser. Abu Kasem was almost out of his mind, but he was forced to pay.

a man on top of an elephant
The Rider and the Elephant

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 judge 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.

  • This story is reproduced from the collection of stories and commentaries put together by Heinrich Zimmer “The King and the Corpse”


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