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Worth Repeating: Abu Kassem’s Slippers

September 9, 2012

It was a tale well known to children all over Africa: Abu Kassem, a miserly Baghdad merchant, had held onto his battered, much repaired pair of slippers even though they were objects of derision. At last, even he couldn’t stomach the sight of them. But his every attempt to get rid of his slippers ended in disaster: . . . when he dropped them in the canal, the slippers choked off the main drain and caused flooding, and off Abu Kassem went to jail…

“One night when Tawfiq finished, another prisoner, a quiet dignified old man, said, ‘Abu Kassem might as well build a special room for his slippers. Why try to lose them? He’ll never escape.’ The old man laughed, and he seemed happy when he said that. That night the old man died in his sleep.

“The next night, out of respect for the old man, we lay in silence. No story. I could hear men crying in the dark. This was always the low point for me. Ah, boys…I’d pretend you both were against me, just like this, and I would imagine Hema’s face before me.

“The following night, we couldn’t wait to talk about Abu Kassem. We all saw it the same way. The old man was right. The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, very seed you sow, or don’t sow, becomes part of your destiny…I met Hema in the septic ward at Government General Hospital in India, in Madras, and that brought me to this continent. Because of that, I got the biggest gift of my life–to be a father to you two. Because of that, I operated on General Mebratu, who became my friend. Because he was my friend, I went to prison. Because I was a doctor, I helped to save him, and they let me out. Because I saved him, they could hang him…You see what I’m saying?”

I didn’t, but he spoke with such passion I wasn’t about to stop him.

“I never knew my father, and so I thought he was irrelevant to me. My sister felt his absence so strongly that it made her sour, and so no matter what she has, or will ever have, it won’t be enough.” He sighed. “I made up for his absence by hoarding knowledge, skills, seeking praise. What I finally understood in Kerchele is that neither my sister nor I realized that my father’s absence is our slippers. 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.”

All these years and I hadn’t known this about Ghosh, about his father dying when he was young. He was like us, fatherless, but at least we had him. Perhaps he’d been worse off than we were.

Ghosh sighed. “I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele. 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 your actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

–Abraham Verghese

I never wanted to be a working mother. For years I fought it, not realizing that it’s not really that big of a deal after all. My kids are fine. Our village supports and loves them, as much if not better than had I done it all alone.

I never wanted to be motherless. I’ve gone through anger, bitterness, even hatred over losing her so soon. Despite my rage, her death has shaped me, changed me, and given me insights I never would have otherwise had.

I never wanted to be a writer. Not that I didn’t NOT want to be one, I just didn’t know that these were my slippers all along. Now that I’ve found them (and believe me, the irony of this shoe analogy has not escaped me) I never want to take them off.

p.s. This book is extraordinary. Truly. I think it’s in my top five of all time. Brilliantly written. Exquisite.

What are the slippers you’ve tried to get rid of, yet failed to own?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2012 10:13 pm

    LOVED this book, love your take on this small part of it. Thanks.

  2. September 10, 2012 8:42 am

    My first thought was, “I need to think about this” but my second thought followed so quickly I knew I already had my answer. “You are a perfectionist!” I have never accepted that about myself. How could a procrastinor and someone as unorganized as I am possibly be a perfectionist? Just look at my closet, my kitchen counter, my sink full of dishes waiting to be placed in the yet unloaded dishwasher! I think there are many dangers associated with perfectionism but having recognized it as part of my identity I am learning to compensate. Love the Cars movie and the character who says, “get ‘er done!” The swoosh on my Nike tennis shoes speaks to me as well. My perfectionism is making me question myself as I type, “is this what she meant”? “Did I get it?” I am going to own my slippers and just hit “Post comment”! Thanks for sharing, dear one!

    • September 10, 2012 8:49 am

      You got it, Patty! You definitely got the point of this one. Good girl, for owning your slippers. You need to start following shmm Cheri Gregory’s blog on perfectionism, you would love it!

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