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A Straight Path Through Sin City

Followers of Islam in this adult playground struggle not only with post-Sept. 11 uncertainties, but with the temptations of a town built on decadence. Some believe the test makes them better Muslims.

August 01, 2004|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

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.

Mobina Nabi stood at the edge of a celebration taking place outside a mosque on Desert Inn Road. This was in mid-November, at the close of the month of fasting and reflection known as Ramadan. Over the happy squeals of children, Nabi described how a decade earlier her family had been torn from a comfortable existence in Afghanistan.

"The Taliban come one night," the 38-year-old recalled, her two school-age children listening at her side. "They are crazy. Crazy people. My husband was a pilot. They don't like him. They kill him. Like this."

Nabi slashed a finger across her throat. And then, with an expression that conveyed something like disbelief, she repeated the gesture, twice.

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.


"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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