Muslims in Las Vegas


There must be easier places for a Muslim to follow the straight
path to paradise. Islam forbids gambling, alcohol, public nudity,
fornication. Las Vegas banks on them, promoting its Sin City reputation as
vigorously as Southern California boosters once pitched sunshine and oranges.

"What happens here, stays here," winks the Las Vegas Convention and
Visitors Authority in a national advertising campaign. The cityscape is
awash in straightforward invitations to adult frolic. Seminude vixens
beckon from freeway billboards, taxicab placards and newspaper racks,
taking seductive bites out of apples, coiling themselves around serpents,
posing seven across, hip to bare hip, buttocks flexed.

What's a good Muslim to do?

"Lower your gaze," an imam intoned in his sermon, or khutbah, before
prayers one Friday last spring. "Especially you young brothers. Out there"
- he pointed vaguely in the direction of the Strip - "you must lower your
gaze."

There are about 10,000 Muslims in Las Vegas, and they come from all over.
In the mosques on any Friday, one can find well-to-do doctors from the
Indian subcontinent, barrel-chested circus tumblers from Tangier,
cabdrivers from Compton, war widows from Kabul...

These are awkward times for the people of Islam here and across America.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent military campaigns in the
predominantly Muslim countries of Afghanistan and Iraq have brought new
uncertainties and complications to everyday life.

Many perceive that their loyalty has come under question, their American
welcome suspended, if not revoked. Sometimes this message arrives in overt
ways - an unannounced visit from FBI agents, an anti-Muslim epithet
scrawled inside a portable toilet at the mosque. More often it takes
subtler forms - a long stare from a stranger on an airplane, a clicking
sound on the telephone that might or might not mean a law enforcement
eavesdropper has come on the line.

"Did you hear that?" asked Aziz Eddebbarh, a hydraulic engineer who serves
as a liaison of sorts between Las Vegas Muslims and the rest of the city,
midway through what had been a rather innocuous telephone conversation
about the Islamic calendar.

"What?"

"Those clicks. Look, can you call me back at my other number? Do you
understand?"

Las Vegas, population 933,000, is one of the nation's fastest-growing
cities, and Muslims are attracted to it by the same amenities that draw all
newcomers: economic opportunity, relatively inexpensive real estate, a
tolerable - in certain seasons even spectacular - desert climate.

The first Muslims to settle in Las Vegas, according to mosque lore, were
three acrobats from Morocco who came to perform on the Strip in the early
1960s. One of them remains a mosque regular, but he shyly declines when
asked to cast light on a popular, perhaps apocryphal, side plot to this
pioneer story.

The three acrobats, the story goes, were offered a chance in those days to
purchase property beyond what were then the far limits of the Strip. They
declined, convinced that $5,000 was too much to pay for what they
considered an unpromising piece of real estate - the very same ground where
Caesars Palace now stands. No wonder the man might not want to talk about it.

Muslims who live here will insist - as do Mormons, Catholics, Baptists,
Jews, agnostics and all the rest - that they can exist almost completely
apart from the Las Vegas of gambling and long-legged entertainment and its
ever-present shadow population of 250,000 tourists and conventioneers. They
might take a visiting relative to one of the tamer stage shows or a
breakfast buffet, but that's all.

"I have never put a quarter in any of the machines in Las Vegas," said Dr.
Mohammed A. Shafi, a 40-year-old internist from India, "and I have never
tasted alcohol in my entire life."

Still, for some Muslims, the parallel cities, by necessity, do overlap.
Immigrants seeking entry-level jobs find them most easily in the hotels and
casinos, and at Friday prayers those who work around alcohol are reminded
not to enter the mosque with even a drop on their skin or clothing.

 


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