Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part II)

Sandals of Ayaz 1

Illustrated by Leo and  Diane Dillon

The Sandals of Ayaz is a retelling of a Middle Eastern tale by P.L. Travers. As mentioned in my previous post, this story and the story Abu Kassem’s Slippers first appeared in Parabola (a magazine P.L. Travers helped co-found in 1976) under the theme of initiation, and then, in 1980 in the illustrated book Two Pairs of Shoes.

P.L. Travers saw a connection between these two stories, but she only gave a hint of it and left it to the readers to find the meaning by themselves. A firm believer in the virtues of teaching and learning by indirection she wrote:

These two stories have been lying around for hundreds of years in the minds of men, yet no one has thought of linking them and showing how each reflects the other. Fate left it for me to do. What a piece of luck.

P.L. Travers, 1980

Before I tell you what possible link P.L. Travers might have made between these two stories, let me tell you the story of The Sandals of Ayaz.

Ayaz was King Mahmoud’s Treasurer and most trusted man. One day the King decided to test the honesty and loyalty of his courtiers. He offered to each one in turn a beautiful pearl and then ordered them to break it. To the King’s surprise, the courtiers could not bring themselves to destroy such a beautiful and valuable object. Only Ayaz, without any hesitation, obeyed the King’s order and crushed the pearl between two stones.  The King praised Ayaz’s loyalty and the courtiers frightened for their lives, as they realized they were put on trial, began to lament themselves.

Sandals of Ayaz 3

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King’s anger was mighty.  He signaled the Executioner and if Ayaz did not intervene on the courtiers’ behalf their lives would have been lost. But, instead of gratitude the hearts of the greedy courtiers were filled with jealousy. And as jealous people often do, they scrutinized Ayaz’s every action in the hope of finding something to destroy him with.

Thus, they noticed how every day Ayaz spent time alone in his room, and how each time he came out of it, he locked the door and put the key in his pocket. To add to this suspicious behaviour, no one was ever invited in Ayaz’s room.  

The courtiers suspected Ayaz of stealing from the King’s treasure and without wasting much time they sowed a seed of doubt in the King’s mind. But, after a thorough search of Ayaz’s room the courtiers could not find any stolen treasure. What they found instead were the remnants of Ayaz’s humble beginnings as a shepherd boy: a “dusty sheepskin jacket and a pair of tattered sandals”. The evil men had to admit to the King that their suspicions were unfounded.

Sandals of Asyaz 4

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

The King wanted to know why Ayaz was so attached to his sandals and sheepskin jacket. Ayaz explained. These objects helped him remember where he came from. He knew that the prosperity he was enjoying was a gift from the King, and he kept asking himself the question: “Without this gift, what am I?” The humble sheepskin jacket and tattered sandals helped Ayaz to know himself. And, as all spiritual teachings attempt to impart, he who knows himself knows God.

By reminding himself his lowly birth Ayaz avoided the trap of attaching himself to his new identity as the King’s treasurer clad in costly robes. Although he enjoyed his new position, he did not identify with it and he did not fear losing it.  All identities, teaches us the story of Ayaz, are but costumes we change in the course of our lives. And if we are to flow with life and keep growing, we better not attach to our costumes but remember our true essence.

Sandals of Ayaz 5

Illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon

P.L. Travers was a follower of the spiritual teachings of Gurdjieff and his influence on her writings can be traced even in her retelling of this Middle Eastern tale. Gurdjieff taught his pupils self-awareness. He aimed to wake them up from their state of self-ignorance which enslaved them to their passions and impulses. He talked about self-remembrance and self-observation. Without knowledge of oneself, Gurdjieff believed man to be living his life in an automatic machinelike manner, a creature under hypnotic sleep.

I believe that P.L. Travers’s study of Gurdjieff’s teachings helped her to make the connection between these two stories which mirror Gurdjieff’s metaphor of the “two ends of the same stick”: one story illustrating a successful pattern of embracing a new identity without unnecessary attachment, and the other showing us a pattern of a failed initiation.

Abu Kassem was someone who was unsatisfied with  his condition in life and who did all that he could do to improve it. But his shrewdness and cunning overpowered him and caused his ruin. Ayaz was luckier than Abu Kassem. He lived without any ambition and was lifted up to a prosperous position by virtue of his good reputation.  The differences in the personality traits of these two fictional characters make me wonder. Does ambition always lead to a downfall and does integrity always leads to success? In a spiritual sense I do believe that to be the case, but since we  also live on the physical plane, we must find the balance between the inner and outer worlds.

Gurdjieff himself was a self-made man and one that did his best to direct his life in the desired by him direction. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not. Moreover, Gurdjieff was cunning, and he defined his teaching as “the way of the sly man”. And if we are to apply his philosophy of cunning and canning (meaning ability) the right way of being in the world  would be a combination of Abu Kassem’s cunning and frugality, and Ayaz’s purity of heart. A fine balance between two seemingly opposite positions: personal interest versus humility and service to others; between outer success and inner growth. Now, how is one to achieve this balance?

Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff cover page

According to P.L. Travers, and echoing Gurdjieff, we can achieve it through sustained attention. However, sustained simultaneous focus on our outer world and our inner world is an extremely difficult task.  P.L. Travers suggests that the first step towards the attainment of this sort of all-encompassing attention is our intention to be attentive.

Many are those down the ages who, sorrowing for their own lack of watchfulness, have too late learned what it means to pay attention, that it is not something that simply happens, nor to be had by chance…

 If man has within him the potential, if only as a germ, to share in the consciousness of the universe, even to glimpse at moments certain aspects of the Unknown (behold, I show you a mystery!) above all, to learn to know himself, can this be done without attention?

 And what of that word “pay”? First of all the whole person, all the functions closely cohering—thought, feeling, bodily sensation—must be ready, vigilant, alert; and to preface this ingathering there must be present in us—one can sum it up in one single word: attention’s closest kin, intention.

P.L. Travers, Sunflower, Parabola Magazine, Vol. XV, No. 2, Summer 1990

Two Pairs of Shoes by P.L. Travers (Part I)

Abu Kassem Slippers 1

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 Slippers 2

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.

Abu Kassem Slippers 3

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.

Abu Kassem Slippers 7

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.

Abu Kassem Slippers 8

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 Slipeprs 6

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