Finding a life lesson in an old pair of slippers | Whale’s Tales

Lately I have found myself overwhelmed.

Overwhelmed by people who accept no responsibility for disaster-ifying their own lives and refuse to own up to the role they play in making bad stuff happen.

I am also gobsmacked by the lengths people will go to absolve themselves of wrongdoing by finding scapegoats. Yet in the teeth of evidence that puts them at the center of all the “conspiracies” against them, they persist in the pattern of harmful behavior that wounds them.

It’s got me thinking.

Have you ever read “The Slippers of Abu Kassim,” from “The Tales of the Arabian Nights?”

You haven’t? Well, you should. This short story, which I first set eyes on in Heinrich Zimmer’s excellent collection of mythology, “The King and the Corpse,” not only spins an entertaining tale, but also carries deep meaning.


Abu Kassim was a wealthy merchant in the days of old Baghdad. He was also greedy and miserly. The outward emblem of his greed was his ratty, time-worn slippers. Everyone in the city knew about the slippers, knew Kassim was rich, knew he could afford better, but was too cheap.

In time the old money grubber’s slippers became a byword on the lips of the people, so that whenever anyone wanted to talk about some absurdity, he or she would drag the slippers into the conversation to make the point.

Now, it came to pass on the day after he’d concluded a profitable business deal, the legendary skinflint made up his mind to celebrate the achievement by cleaning himself up at one of the city’s public baths.

Before entering the bath, Kassim took off his clothes and slipped out of his shameful slippers. When he was finished, he emerged to find a beautiful and pricey set of golden slippers seemingly waiting for him next to his own infamous pair. Assuming a friend had left them there for him as a gift, Kassim took the fine footwear and left his own in their place.

Only later did Kassim, learn that the priceless slippers actually belonged to a powerful official. And when Kassim, wearing the beauties, was summoned to court to answer for his misdeed, he learned there would be no hiding his guilt. See, he’d taken the slippers of the judge presiding over his case, and everyone knew it. The heavy fine he had to pay irked his avaricious soul, but he paid it.

Upset, Kassim, decided then and there that he would bury the rags in his backyard at night and be done with them. But a neighbor saw him at his work, reasoned that if the great skinflint was burying something by the light of the moon, it had to be valuable, so he later dug up the ragged footwear. As a result, he suffered a great and costly misfortune. So for the second time in as many days, Kassim, was hauled into court and forced to pay out another heavy fine.

When Kassim, returned home, he set the slippers on his balcony. But some dogs nosed them over the edge into the street below, where they landed on someone’s head, severely injuring him. Back to court again, another large fine.

Now beside himself with rage, and more than ever determined to rid himself of the loathsome, malevolent slippers, Kassim, threw them out. But they got into a canal, and clogged it up. This time the fine the city levied against him wiped him out completely.

So what’s the meaning here?

As Zimmerman wrote, Kassim, could not rid himself of the slippers because they were himself, the outward emblems of his greedy soul. And like faithful dogs, the slippers kept returning to him with tails a-wag. He failed to find in himself the author of the calamity that had ruined him.

When the dark times hit, we need to realize that they are also vehicles of transformation that can teach us hidden things about ourselves.

When we lay the blame on others, we make ourselves the gray skies darkening their days.

Robert Whale can be reached at