Illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon
P.L. Travers is mostly known for her Mary Poppins books but her literary contributions unfold beyond the fantastical world of her magical nanny. She was an explorer of a variety of spiritual esoteric traditions, more interested in experiencing life and extracting the truth as one extracts gold from the earth, than following the prescribed dogmas of organised religions. She weaved her spiritual notions into a spiderlike web of stories and musings about the mysteries of life.
In her seventies P.L. Travers was very much involved within the Gurdjieff Society and the study of the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Here is what is written in the Gurdjieff Review about P.L. Travers:
It was her special skill in connecting or linking the pearls of spiritual tradition which was undoubtedly her greatest and perhaps her unique contribution to the activities of the [Gurdjieff] Society. She helped to set up and index the Society’s library to include not only all Gurdjieff’s books and those of Ouspensky, Nicoll, Walker and others pertaining to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but also a comprehensive collection of major texts and works on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism and so on.
While studying Sufism in the early 1970s, Pamela and her study group presented a dramatized reading of The Conference of the Birds, but only when she was satisfied that enough years had been given to a shared study of The Koran, the Hadith, the historical life of the Prophet, as well as the works of al-Ghazzali, Rumi, ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj, the question of al-Khidr (the Islamic green man) and dul-Quarnein (Alexander the Great).
Thus, P.L. Travers familiar with Middle Eastern tales, wrote her own retellings of two ancient stories for the first issue of Parabola in 1976 (a magazine she helped co-found) on the theme of Initiation: Abu Kassem’s Slippers and The Sandals of Ayaz. These two stories reappeared in 1980 as an illustrated story book under the title “Two Pairs of Shoes” and then in 1990 in the compilation of her essays “What the Bee Knows”.
In this post I want to entertain you with P.L. Travers’s retelling of Abu Kassem’s Slippers*.
Abu Kassem is a prosperous merchant who shamelessly displays his miserliness by walking around town with a pair of shabby slippers. One day, as he roams the bazaar for bargains, he successfully acquires a few beautiful crystal bottles and some attar of roses for a fraction of their value. On his way home he decides to celebrate his good fortune by stopping at the public hot baths for a soak. There he meets an acquaintance who tries to convince him to get new slippers. But, Abu Kassem disregards his friend’s suggestion because he lives by the adage: Want not, waste not.
When Abu Kassem comes out of the bath, he finds a pair of beautiful slippers instead of his own tattered ones, and without a shadow of a doubt, he assumes that it must have been his friend who has decided to gift him with these glittering new slippers. So, he happily puts them on and goes back home. Unfortunately for Abu Kassem, from the moment his feet enter the foreign slippers his life is turned upside down.
The new slippers were not a gift from his friend, but the slippers of the Cadi (judge) of Baghdad, who of course was not happy to find his slippers missing. Abu Kassem is found by the Cadi’s servants and is fined an enormous sum of money for the offense caused to the Cadi. Abu Kassem is outraged and tries to get rid of his slippers but at every attempt he makes to destroy them, the wretched slippers come back and cause some sort of disaster for which Abu Kassem is blamed and must pay an onerous fine. At last, Abu Kassem begs the Cadi to free him from his slippers for they have completely ruined his fortune.
Why did P.L. Travers choose this story for the theme of initiation?
Because the story of Abu Kassem is one of failed initiation. Deep inside Abu Kassem resists to change his identity of a poor man for a new identity of a prosperous one and thus, fails to reach the next stage of his life. Abu Kassem’s survival fear of not having enough is a self-fulfilled prophecy that takes him right back to the starting point of his journey.
His frugality and shrewdness, once helpful to him, have turned into vices holding a powerful grip on his psyche, forbidding him to embrace his new identity. The inner world of Abu Kassem did not reflect the outer conditions of his life, and that conflict had to be resolved either by a conscious choice on his part, or by fate.
The process of recognising that his values are no longer serving him, and that he is controlled by fear, is a long one for Abu Kassem. When he tries to get rid of the slippers they just keep coming back. Even the elements of water, earth, fire, and air could not destroy them. Abu Kassem had to realize that the only way to throw them out of his life is through his personal transformation. And the first step of that transformation requires him to consciously integrate his survival fear of not having enough. It is this fear that compels him to hoard material goods and to alienate himself from others.
Abu Kassem’s story shows us the pattern of resistance and the consequences that ensue when we choose to cling to an out-worn identity. Life is everchanging, and we as part of life are everchanging too, even when we desperately cling to identities that no longer serve us. We have a choice, the story tells us, we either shed our old self to allow the new one to emerge, or like Abu Kassem, we arrest our inner growth and regress in life. There is no middle ground.
Change will occur anyhow, and we must pay attention to the warnings life sends us if we are to avoid disaster. Abu Kassem is advised by his friend that it is time to change his slippers. But he refuses to listen. How familiar is this to you? How many times have you refused to listen to life’s signs and warnings? Can we all learn from the mistakes of Abu Kassem just in time before our own out-worn slippers teach us the hard way? Surely, P.L. Travers believed that stories could teach us the ways of life. And, maybe it is time to believe her and stop looking at myths, folk tales and fairy tales as means for entertainment.
* retold from the Thamarat Ul-Awark (Fruit of Leaves) of Ibn Hijjat Al-Hamawi