James Joyce’s Araby

I’m currently reading James Joyce’s Dubliners and the third story is called Araby. As is explained in the notes (the edition I have is the beautiful Centennial Edition, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, and the notes are by Terence Brown), the word Araby is a poetic name for Arabia. They explain that ‘throughout the nineteenth century the orient was a principal object of European romance and fantasy, in which images of exoticism, sensuality, prodigious wealth and refined cruelty were all involved.” 

The story involves the principal character wishing to go to the Araby bazaar in order to get something for his love interest. The bazaar that Joyce was referring to, identified later by Richard Ellmann, took place between May 14th and 19th 1894 and had a theme song called ‘I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby’. I found a 1908 performance of it by Irish tenor John McCormack which you can listen to here. 

The lyrics go like this:

I’ll sing thee songs of Araby,
And tales of fair Cashmere,
Wild tales to cheat thee of a sigh,
Or charm thee to a tear;
And dreams of delight shall on thee break,
And rainbow visions rise,
And all my soul shall strive to wake
Sweet wonder in thine eyes,
And all my soul shall strive to wake
Sweet wonder in thine eyes.

Though those twin lakes, when wonder wakes,
My raptured song shall sink,
And as the diver dives for pearls,
Bring tears, bright tears to their brink;
And dreams of delight shall on thee break,
And rainbow visions rise,
And all my soul shall strive to wake
Sweet wonder in thine eyes.

When Joyce’s character tells his uncle that he wishes to go to the bazaar, his uncle asks him whether he knows of The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed which, the notes explain, was a poem by the Irish poet Caroline Norton who lived between 1808 and 1877. The poem was a very popular piece for recitation during Joyce’s time. I found myself wishing we had that Arab rather than the one dominating (what feels like) every minute of ‘the news’ for much of my childhood. It must say a lot about the long-term damage caused by the latter over even my own sense of self.

There have been hundreds of books written since Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism but this is not what I have in mind. Said’s book came out in the 1970s, but I turned 10 years old on September 11th 2001, and my experience of ‘Orientalism’ was never that of a romanticized, sensual and cruel ‘East’, but rather one in which our irredeemable flaws have plagued our world for millennia and would always stay with us, because we were just bad people, only half-civilized at best, in need of some bombings and democracy. Reading Joyce’s Araby, I somehow longed for when we were seen as romanticized brutes who gave in to our senses. Could I have enchanted curious eyes at that 1894 bazaar with some folk tales passed on from my grandparents? Or would it have been sufficient to just be there as an ‘eastern Christian’?


Musings part 2:

Would Joyce’s catholic readers at the time have known of the Arab Catholics to whom Arabia was as exotic as Ireland was to the Irish? I grew up in the same church as James Joyce did, the priests and nuns who gave me my first decade of education were Roman, Maronites and Melkite Greek Catholics for the most part. I prayed in Latin, Arabic, French and Aramaic. Some Irish and British orientalists and nationalists at the time must have thought about ‘us’, surely, given that some of them were convinced that the Irish and/or British were partly descendant of the ancient Phoenicians, not unlike how many Lebanese nationalists continue to believe that to this day.

In the case of Ireland, this fragment of Irish nationalism, which took on various shades of importance throughout the centuries, dates all the way back to the 17th century with Roderic O’Flaherty (Ruaidrhí Ó Flaithbheartaigh)’s 1685 Ogygia, according to historian Josephine Quinn in an interesting essay on the role of ancient Phoenicia in British, Irish and Lebanese nationalism. I haven’t done extensive research on the presence of what we’d call today Orientalism in Joyce’s world, but it’s fair to assume from this story that it occupied a considerable presence. Joyce had a very complex, and mostly hostile, attitude towards Irish nationalism from what I understand, but I can’t help wondering whether his more cosmopolitan and pan-European sentiments would require the ‘oriental’ Other.

In Araby, all Joyce’s character desires is to get something from the bazaar to the girl he fancies. This simple desire is allowed to be because the character does not have to deal (yet) with the preconceived ideologies that may later be imposed on him. He could simply try, and fail, to be. What’s so striking about Araby though, like indeed the other stories comprising Dubliners, is how often it is “marked by dead-ends, anti-climaxes, things not going anywhere,” as one reviewer put it. It’s what I most strongly identified with, something which perhaps links Joyce’s Dublin to my Beirut, the sense that all roads leading to Beirut are actually dead-ends. What does it say, then, about the two decades since 9/11 that dead-ends seem like pleasant improvements?