“Somewhere That’s Green”: Little Shop of Horrors and the Man-Eating Lawns of Cairo
Last May, I organized an outing to the theater for some friends who’d had enough of Cairo. An American family of three, they’d spent two years living in Abbasiya, a central Cairo neighborhood that was a fashionable haunt for pashas and colonialists during the late nineteenth century. Abbasiya now is now a densely-packed middle-class neighborhood full of fuul stands, tire shops, and a cacophonous highway overpass that runs right over my friends’ front gate. It is also the site of the main state psychiatric hospital; “Going to Abbasiya” is Cairene slang for going crazy. After two years of noise, pollution, and the constant backdrop of concrete dusted with car exhaust, they were ready to move back to a green little suburb in the United States.
So it’s fitting that the theater we visited was at the American University in Cairo’s New Campus, in the spacious suburban satellite city of New Cairo, 34 kilometers and a world away from Abbasiya.
We were there to see Little Shop of Horrors, a 1982 musical by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman about a nebbishy florist and his Faustian bargain with a man-eating plant named Audrey II. It might seem an odd choice for the AUC Theater Department’s first attempt at an English-language musical, but if you’re staging a dark comedy about the moral cost of escaping a crumbling city for the suburbs, there’s no better spot than New Cairo, a sprawling patch of manicured lawns and empty villas in the desert, far from the scuffed-up downtown and the unplanned settlements where most Egyptians live. Little Shop of Horrors’s dated satire of American suburban fantasies takes on new life in Egypt, where the elite dreams of abandoning the complexities of Cairo (and its 20 million-plus inhabitants) for virgin plots of manicured grass in the desert. Sometimes the lawn will eat you alive.
The student cast was game that night. Mohamed Ahmed was convincingly nebbishy as Seymour Krelborn and Fahd Motawe played Mr. Mushnik, Seymour’s bullying boss, with comic bluster. There was a strange frisson in seeing young Egyptian actors play these stereotypically Jewish characters, complete with comic Noo Yawk accents and dialogue sprinkled with Yiddish. I can say with confidence that it was the first time I’d heard the word “schmendrick” out loud in Cairo. By far the best performer was Amy Frega, who gave unexpected pathos to Audrey, an abused and self-loathing beauty with a gorgeous voice, painfully conscious of just how narrow the horizons are for “a girl like her.”
The early number “Skid Row” shows us the world Seymour and Audrey live in, and how desperate they are to escape.
Skid Row is dark, dirty, crowded, and poor. It’s a vertical space, where tenements, walls, and fences block out the sun and pen the inhabitants into narrow corners. The 1986 film of Little Shop shoots Seymour through a chain-link fence in a narrow alley, and then reverses shot to show a chorus of dirty vagrants, most of them African-American, slowly swarming up the fence like film zombies. All Seymour can do is run back the way he came.
“I’ve gotta get out of here” is “Skid Row’s” chorus, but where does one go? The answer is in Audrey’s solo number, “Somewhere That’s Green.”
Where Skid Row is dirty, crowded, and narrow, “Somewhere That’s Green” paints a broad green horizon. Audrey’s cartoon fantasy is spacious, orderly, and antiseptically clean. The film captures the Cartesian clarity of this suburban high-modernism. Audrey’s sunny dream is all right angles and solid blocks of color. Everything is sorted and in its place.
I wasn’t sure how “Somewhere That’s Green,” which is one long string of baby boomer nostalgia jokes, would land with the mostly young and Egyptian audience, though Audrey’s fantasy of watching I Love Lucy on “Our big, enormous, 12-inch screen” did get a big laugh. Frega managed to get past the easy jokes and capture the pathos of Audrey’s dream. On Skid Row, as in Abbasiya, everything is already old, already dirty, already used. There are no fresh starts, only the constant negotiation of a space that’s already too crowded, too complex, and too contested. Audrey’s desire to escape to the clean lines of the suburbs is also a fantasy of virginity, a sexually experienced woman’s ashamed wish to be a virgin again and married to the equally virginal Seymour. Behind the jokes, there’s the fantasy of the blank slate, the virgin territory where the past can be abandoned and a new world formed. In America, that space has been the frontier and the suburbs. In Egypt, it’s the desert.
In Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster, the Cairo-based urban planner David Sims notes that “It is rare to find a treatment of Egypt’s development prospects that does not manage to mention the 96 percent or so of the population is squeezed into only 4 percent of the country’s land area.” Since the pharaohs, human life in Egypt has clung to the green ribbon of the Nile valley and delta. In 1924, Egyptologist Arthur Wiegall described the perspective of most Egyptians at most times: “The resident … raises his eyes from the fertile valley of the Nile to the bare hills, and lowers them once more with the feeling that he has looked at the wall of the garden, the boundary of the land.”1
The capital’s urban expansion took on a new form after the coup that established the Egyptian Republic in 1952. The vast blank spaces on the map became what Timothy Mitchell, in his forward to Sims’ book, calls a “topographical imperative,”2 prompting scheme after scheme to conquer the desert. For half a century, successive Egyptian governments have announced plans for massive new desert cities that will draw millions of people away from Cairo’s historic core. These plans have nearly always failed.
The building of “New Cities” began under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s, with projects like Nasr City, once meant to be “The City of the Revolution” and a new capital, now a characterless sprawl of mid-size apartment buildings in eastern Cairo. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, called for building self-sufficient satellite cities in the desert around Cairo, resulting in far-flung, mostly-empty exurbs like Sixth of October City, west of the Giza Plateau. Hosni Mubarak launched another wave of desert expansion in 1996, inaugurating New Cairo, another planned new capital on a huge allotment of Eastern Desert land.
In 1995, the New Urban Communities Authority set a population target for the just-announced New Cairo allocation: six million people. The 2006 census counted 118,678 inhabitants.3 As in the other satellite cities, New Cairo’s ambitions have been thwarted by the fact that it is simply impossible for most Egyptians to live there. This is the city for which the American University in Cairo left its historic Tahrir Square buildings in 2008. Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak cut the ribbon on the new campus.
I live in Zamalek, a neighborhood in the dead center of Cairo, and it is over 40 km between my home and my work at AUC. Aside from a single bus line, New Cairo has no official public transit links to the rest of the city. Within New Cairo, streets are wide, sidewalks are scarce, building setbacks are large, and shade is minimal, making walking from place to place a tedious, sun-blasted ordeal. New Cairo, like the other satellite cities, has been built with no regard for how the vast majority of Egyptians actually live. Low-density, detached home, auto-dependent development has nothing to offer urban Egyptians who are used to dense neighborhoods, mixed residential and commercial development, and lots of niches for informal businesses like food carts and street vending. There simply aren’t six million Egyptians who can afford the lifestyle on offer in New Cairo.
My commute across New Cairo takes me past brand new shopping malls full of western chains and English signage, stubby young palm trees, and broad grassy medians watered by stuttering sprinklers and workmen with gushing hoses. Because New Cairo is up on a desert plateau, that water doesn’t even drain back into the Nile aquifer, as it would down in the valley. Once it pools in the gutter and evaporates, it’s gone forever. Behind high walls, I see three and four story villas going up, mostly unfinished and empty, investment properties that no one intends to inhabit. Long stretches of New Cairo look like Phoenix after a neutron bomb blast—a sunbelt city whose population evaporated and left the buildings intact. Like the lawns used the humans to get what they wanted, and then did away with them.
The passion for green lawns in the desert didn’t end with the fall of Mubarak in 2011. Earlier this year, President Abdel-Fatteh Al-Sisi, who toppled Egypt’s first legitimately elected president in a 2013 coup, announced a bold new initiative: a new capital city, to be built in the desert east of New Cairo and stretching all the way to the Gulf of Suez. A slick English-language website promises, absurdly, “A City Shaped by Nature,” and depicts a gleaming oversized Dubai, full of shiny glass office towers, detached two-story homes, and attractive, fair-skinned young professionals with iPads. Trees and green lawns fill the ample spaces between buildings. The familiar sites of central Cairo—the street kiosks, the microbuses, the storefront mosques, and the dark-skinned working class, are meticulously erased. It’s only fitting that The Capital Cairo’s website pairs an artist’s aerial view of the planned city with a photo of AUC’s central plaza.
If history is any guide, this latest new capital will never be built. A few people will get rich, and millions or billions of dollars that could be used to build new subway lines in Cairo or improve an overburdened power grid will be poured away, disappearing like the water gushing off New Cairo’s green medians. The suburban dream continues to eat up the land, wealth, and spirit of Cairo’s elite, with no end in sight.
The Little Shop of Horrors film tacks on a happy ending, but the stage play ends in tragedy. Audrey is mortally wounded by Audrey II and with her dying breath asks Seymour to feed her to the plant. As the jaws close around her, she sings, “finally I’ll go, somewhere that’s green.” Audrey gets her self-annihilating escape, Seymour gets eaten too, and the play ends with a businessman coming to take cuttings from Audrey II and sell them all over America. Soon, the play says, we’ll all be somewhere that’s green.
David Sims, Egypt’s Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster? (Cairo: AUC Press, 2015), and Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (Cairo: AUC Press, 2011) are indispensible guides to the geography, history, and political economy of modern urban Egypt.
Cairobserver, an Arabic/English publication devoted to Egyptian architecture, urbanism, and design is a witty and wildly perceptive window onto how cities are made and unmade in modern Egypt.
Vin Nardizzi’s essay, “Greener,” in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green, ed. Jeffrey J. Cohen (2013): 147-169, uses the classic science-fiction novel Greener Than You Think, about a strain of grass that takes over the world, to examine the ecological costs of suburban dreams and aggressive lawns that come with them.
Featured Image: Mohamed Ahmed as Seymour Krelborn, Amy Frega as Audrey, and Ali El Sabaa (puppeteer) and Mahmoud Osman (voice) as Audrey II. The American University in Cairo’s production of Little Shop of Horrors, May 2015. Photo by Andrea Heilman, AUC Theater Department, May 6, 2015.