Of Esoteric Mysteries, Myths and Legends: Abu Kassem and His Slippers

Ancient tales and legends are based on factual people and events. Over time these recounted stories take on the edifications of the storytellers.

These storytellers keep the tales alive for the current generation to appreciate—if they will take the time. The lessons of yesterday can prepare one for the tasks of tomorrow.

One such tale took place in the ancient city of Baghdad. This city was founded in the 760s by Caliph Al-Mansur on the Khurasan Road where traders with their rich caravans would enter the city on their way to their destinations.

Located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers the city became not only an economic hub, but a center for learning with schools where various cultures were studied. The Golden Age of Islam was underway.

Our story:

Abu Kassem was a merchant. He was more than a merchant. He was a perfumer with a mastery of exotic scents.

With zafaran (saffron) and rose oil and other essential components Abu made some of the best itr (perfume) in the region. His rose gardens were the talk of the city, and the Caliph would send his chief eunuch to have Abu’s servants create vast amounts of rose water.

Rose water was used as bathing water for the harem. Its fragrance could be smelled throughout the city.

As one European traveller said, “When I approached Baghdad for the first time, my senses were overwhelmed by the scent of roses. At the city gates a small boy asked me to extend my hands. As I did, he splashed them with rose water and told me to proceed to the small fountain inside the gate to wash the dust from my hands and face in the bubbling rose water. It was an experience which I will never forget.”

With all the trade Abu became a wealthy man. As he grew older, he grew more eccentric as well.

With the abundance of water from the two great rivers, which had their origin in the Garden of Eden, Abu chose to bath only once a year. Fortunately, for his customers and servants the fragrances of the perfumer masked the human scent fairly well.

However, his other idiosyncratic fault was his slippers. Years before he had emerald-colored footwear made for him.

He never removed them except for his yearly bath. His slippers were not welcome in the streets—even the donkeys would begin braying, and magnificent Arabian stallions would come to a halt and turn in the other direction when they smelled those slippers.

Children would cry. Women would faint from the smell, and mighty warriors would hold their breath as he passed.

Abu was not immune to their outcry about his slippers. He attempted to rid himself of them, but his attempts always proved fruitless.

At his annual bath the bath attendant reprimanded him for bringing such a foul smell into the beautiful place. When the Caliph came for his private bath, he had the attendant remove Abu’s slippers.

The attendant placed them a box with saffron petals. When Abu finished his bath, he could not find his slippers but saw a beautiful pair of ruby-colored ones.

He thought that the bath attendant had given him the new pair. So he placed them on his clean feet and went home.

As one can imagine, when the Caliph finished his bath, he was outraged that his slippers had been stolen. Calling the attendant, he demanded to know who took his slippers.

The bath attendant said that Abu Kassem was the only other person. Summoning Abu, the Caliph tossed the old merchant in prison and retrieved his slippers.

After several days the chief eunuch, gardener, bakery, and a whole host of others came to beg for Abu to be released. The Caliph relented and sent Abu back to his apothecary.

The bath attendant met him at the prison door and gave him his slippers. Unfortunately, all the saffron petals had withered from the smell, and the bath attendant demanded a new box of saffron.

This was costly to Abu, but he did as the attendant asked. Later that day he was in his bedchamber and feeling very sad.

Picking up the slippers, he tossed them out the window into the street. Within seconds he heard a scream and angry shouts.

Later as he stood before the magistrate he found out his slippers had struck the wife of a foreign dignitary. The smell triggered a miscarriage. He was fined a very heavy fine.

He decided that he had enough of these cursed slippers. On his way home he tossed them in the canal believing he would be free.

Unfortunately, the slippers tainted the water supply and clogged the system. The sanitation crew eventually discovered the problem and Abu was fined, a heavy fine once again.

At his wits’ end he buried his slippers at midnight in his rose garden. Surely, he reasoned that they would remain buried forever, and the roses would cover the noxious smell.

The next morning he woke up to digging. Looking out his window down on his rose garden, there were dozens of people digging up his precious garden, his livelihood.

Someone had seen him digging in his garden and spread the rumor that Abu was burying his treasure in order to avoid more fines. Being hauled back into court, he was fined again for avoiding payment of his due share of tax.

The magistrate was in no mood to listen to Abu’s pleas. When he returned home, he was financially ruined.

All he had worked for over the decades was gone because of a pair of slippers. As he opened his door, he was greeted by his slippers on the table.

This was more than the old perfumer could bear. He fell dead in his doorway.

Abu was buried far from the city in the desert with his slippers. The cursed slippers had the final word.


Like all good stories there is a moral here. Doctor Abraham Verghese of Stanford University wrote it well in Cutting Stone:

“The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, every seed you sow, or don’t sow, become part of your destiny…
“In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves…
“The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”


G. D. Williams © 2014

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