Yesterday, with four good friends, I went to Dream Park.
Doesn’t that sound like the beginning of Pilgrim’s Progress? If you never read Pilgrim’s Progress when you were a lonely kid, then perhaps you should; it’s one of the great English novels — the lone believer sets out on foot from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, plodding slowly through an allegorical landscape, through the Country of Coveting and the Slough of Despond, and of course Vanity Fair, which is probably near Dream Park. It entranced and frightened me as a child. The opening had the suddenness of pristine terror:
As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep; and as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.
“What shall I do?” Christian cries, because the book tells him that everything around him will be burnt with a fire from heaven, and he, and his neighbors, and his wife and children are all doomed to annihilation. Isn’t that a good reason to leave home? Isn’t that why you go to Dream Park?
My Egyptian friends invited me on condition that I promise not to open a book all day, because they thought that would be good for me, and you can see why. (Christian’s book tells him, “Flee From the Wrath to Come,” and mine aren’t much lighter.) Dream Park is Egypt’s biggest amusement park, kind of like the various Disney universes but minus the megalomaniacal style. It was a lovely day in the sun with lovely people, cracking jokes and doing the bumper cars and eating homemade kofta sandwiches. I only cheated once and cracked a book during the Towboat Ride, when I was sitting in the back. Don’t tell.
Amusement parks always are a bit of an allegorical landscape for me. “Forget your cares,” they say, and of course if the day works out you do, but there’s no such thing as complete amnesia, and putting the present aside makes room for the past to overtake me. I spent my childhood summers in Noble County, Ohio, a poor and rural place. There were two big revels every season, the County Fair and the Fireman’s Festival (to raise money for the fire department), and for both, traveling carnival companies set up rides. My mother never liked the Fair much, and neither did I. It was mostly for farmers — there was a constant recruiting drive to get kids into 4-H, so intense in its ethical overtones (“Head, heart, hands, health!” “Make the best better!”) that I imagined a junior agricultural cult sacrificing virgins to the crops, although virgins were too rare to be killed lightly in Noble County, and weighing pigs and evaluating fertilizer were the more likely diversions. Also, the Fair rides sucked. Once I went in a “haunted house” which mainly consisted of rubbery things touching your cheeks in the dark. My mother threw a fit at what she almost saw as child abuse, complained to the sinister carnies who huddled in a tent behind, and got our admission back. She liked the Fireman’s Festival better, because your money went to a cause. The crowds were smaller, the steers and swine gone, the rides seemed cooler and the carnies less scary. Every time I go to an amusement park, though, I remember her anger at the ghost house, where I had been robbed of a promised good time. She frightened me sometimes with the intensity of her feeling; but I learned with age, long after her death, that love means going to battle even for others’ smallest joys.
There were things I really enjoyed at Dream Park; there was a boat going over a waterslide that was delightful. But there were things that were different — different, too, from the Disneyland my parents took me to when I was nine years old, where I loved It’s a Small World After All, and the Mad Tea Party. Those ride were intimate and individuated; you got in alone or with your “guardian,” and spun around in a way that left you feeling special — that your experience was your very own, so to speak. (All the more so if you puked in the whirling teacup, and so made your temporary mark.) There were a few like this at Dream Park: they had an imitation teacup ride, and something called Caesar’s Shaker which could have fit in back in Noble County. But all the emphasis was on mega-rides, where dozens of people get buckled into some giant, meat-grinder-like machine.
Is this a new fashion? I don’t remember these being around to envy when I was small. We all took the Top Spin, which looks like a cross between a combine and a trash compactor, except fifty feet high; it takes two rows of strapped-down victims, and hoists them and flips them upside down and throws them groundwards.
I forwent going on Discovery, which seems to be the biggest attraction in the park. Shackled in a circle on a huge gondola hung from metal beams, you sit and the thing spins while swinging back and forth like a bell’s tongue, higher and higher till it’s more than perpendicular to the earth. One of my friends dislocated his shoulder.
Peer pressure to show you can take this stuff pervades the air. Another friend really didn’t like these “violent” rides, he said, and felt so frustrated that he almost cried at his inability to enjoy what other people seemed to. But I knew where he was coming from. I liked the spinning teacups better, and I missed the singing dolls and tinkling cembalo music of It’s a Small World.
I didn’t put words to my dissatisfaction till the day’s end, when we sat in the waning sun while Selim nursed his shoulder, and watched Discovery from a distance. It didn’t look frightening in the right way, it looked degrading: people packaged up and manhandled by a vast machine. It was frightening in the way that air travel is to the inflexibly phobic (including me): not just because of the heights and the speed, but because you’re processed and immobilized, strapped down in an anonymous collective, and everything that goes on abolishes not just your volition but your personhood. It seemed an exercise not so much in excitement as in complete submission, like S&M without any of the erotics, where your master is made of metal and is sixty feet tall. This didn’t strike me as fun. It reminded me of bang-up special effects, from Transformers or War of the Worlds.
Probably it’s good that I didn’t have a book. But being bookless didn’t stop me from wondering what’s the fun in these rides that seem more helplessness than thrills, pure abnegation to technology. Today I remembered Adorno, my old guide and companion Adorno; and I looked up a few passages from Minima Moralia, the book he wrote in exile during the Second World War.
Some years ago, the report circulated in American newspapers about the discovery of a well-preserved dinosaur in the state of Utah. It was emphasized that the specimen in question had outlived its species and was a million years younger than any hitherto known. Such reports, like the repulsively humorous craze for the Loch Ness monster and the King Kong film, are collective projections of the monstrous total state. One prepares for its horrors by getting used to giant images. In the absurd willingness to accept these, a humanity mired in powerlessness makes the desperate attempt to grasp the experience of what makes a mockery of every experience. …Two years before World War II the German public saw a film of the downfall of their zeppelin in Lakehurst. Calm, poised, the ship went on its way, only to suddenly plummet straight down. If there remains no way out, then the destructive drive becomes completely indifferent as to what it never firmly established: as to whether it is directed against others or against its own subject.
This is really not a style of thinking conductive to having fun. (I have read that Adorno greatly enjoyed practical jokes, and that his friends wondered how someone so humorous could write “that way.”) Having quoted it, I wonder if my friends will invite me to Dream Park, or anywhere, ever again.
But he’s on to something, isn’t he? — in our era, where the special effects have gotten even more destructive, where movies are basically a succession of bigger and bigger things getting blown to bits. In such an age, every park is Jurassic. This feeling that being manhandled and anonymous before some humongous power, helpless in a humiliated mass, is fun: does it arise, not from some deep eternal masochism in the human soul, but from this moment in our history, where everybody’s strapped down to something, where powerlessness is so much the way you are that being even more powerless is the only thrill you can imagine?
You go to the many Dream Parks to get away from the city. But the history of amusement parks is one of counter-urbanism, creating faux utopian spaces that nonetheless reflect as well as refute the realities left behind them. Disneyland is vacation from and mirror to L.A., Dream Park is oasis and supplement to Cairo. (FORREC, the Canadian firm that built it, cites “forty years of experience in theme, urban, architectural and interior design” that give “a singular ability to merge design creativity with fiscal practicality.”) It’s fourteen years old, but it’s part of a larger urban project that began in the late Sadat years (when capitalism and speculation came to once-socialist Egypt): to create “new cities” on the edges of Cairo, safety valves for the megalopolis’s congestion. The rage of masses trapped in crowded poverty and powerlessness demanded an outlet: not for them, but for the middle classes who wanted to leave that menacing anger and the sump and stagnation behind.
Dream Park was uncrowded, comparatively empty on our visit, another victim of Cairo’s tensions and the curfew. (The latter only moved back from 9 to 11 PM yesterday.) People don’t like to travel these days. Earlier, another friend even warned me about the microbuses you have to take to get there — “terrorists” will stop them to take sojourners hostage, he told me. Those who had trekked there wanted, like us, to enjoy a day with the streets far off, the stories of murder silenced. But it’s not that simple. October 6 City, of which the park is a peripheral part, is an excrescence in the desert; it still looks as though only enchantment sustains its cement and lawns, as though a brief lapse of will would make the mirage vanish. When it wavers into sight on the straight horizon, it reminds you of the power of the corporate djinns who coaxed it from a lunar landscape of sand and rock. Speculating in land is almost the only growth sector in Egypt’s economy, but it takes enormous money and influence to make the desert even pretend to bloom. A Mubarak crony bribed his way to get the permits to build 6 October City. He eventually married his daughter off to the then President’s son: a fairy tale about a captive princess that might make a decent theme park ride. After the Revolution, a court tried him for corruption, along with the former Minister of Housing, who enabled his castles in the sand; he got a prison sentence in absentia. But he’s fled somewhere to safety, his class of hangers-on is back in power again after the coup, and few expect him to suffer much or long.
The whole desert development is artificial, an enormous strain on the environment that seems to be cracking at the seams. The grass is desiccated, the sand can’t be kept out of doors. In Dream Park, the aquatic rides take an immense amount of water — more than anybody could justify allotting to the place when 18 million people are living in the vicinity; so they keep reusing it, and it stagnates, and in corners it smells, and bloated dragonflies circle hungrily above the guests.
I’m not a good person for amusement, I suppose. Yet I really enjoyed Dream Park; I loved being with my friends; I loved the innocence despite everything, and I loved — even as I swayed under — the unleashed flood of memories of childhood. Tonight I’m remembering still, and for some reason I’m thinking of Pilgrim’s Progress. I read it in my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in Noble County, on languid summer days when the bluebottle flies buzzed in the prisoning windowpanes. It stood in the dark bookcase with many other old books, but it was the most impressive; they had a stately edition from the Henry Altemus Company, ample with engravings, one that must have sat in the parlor of many a pious family at the last century’s turn. I remember looking at Christian casting off his burden, Christian tempted by Vanity Fair, Christian crossing the river at last to the Celestial City.
I remember also the book’s ending, which brought back the pure terror of the beginning, here at the resolution where it was least expected. Christian and Hopeful enter Heaven after fording the treacherous RIver of Something. But Ignorance — a bumbling character who’s been the earnest hero’s comic foil — sails over by boat, which is cheating, and then tries to charm his way in without his ticket of salvation. The sentinels turn stonefaced, the story darkens. “When they asked him for his certificate, so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none. Then said they, Have you none? but the man answered never a word.”
The King of Heaven is intolerant of intruders. He orders his servants, “the two shining ones,” to act: “to go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.” I never forgot these lines:
Then they took him up, and carried him through the air to the door that I saw in the side of the hill, and put him in there. Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gate of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. So I awoke, and behold it was a dream.