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MUSLIMS IN LAS VEGAS

Private Moments in the Public Eye

A community still struggles with newfound tensions, but in a year's time, most lives are marked more by the personal than the political.

August 05, 2004|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — A full year had passed and it was time for a final visit to the Muslims of Las Vegas. April to April, spring to spring, the world had coughed up one arresting image after another, from the fire-streaked thunderclouds of shock and awe to the charred body parts of Americans dangling from a bridge in Iraq.

And every day, it seemed, a fresh body count from the war -- one, two, three more Americans dead. And every month or so, another front-page picture of rubble and ripped limbs, another dateline marking the latest large-scale terrorist assault -- Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta, Istanbul, Moscow, Madrid.

While these calamitous events translated into more unease, more muttered comments from co-workers, more hard looks in airports, they were not, in fact, the touchstone moments by which Las Vegas Muslims measured the previous 12 months.

Rather, like people everywhere, the landmarks they looked back on tended to involve the universal turns of everyday life: a death in the family, a business venture gone bust, a child who made the honor roll, a new house, a memorable trip.

Muhammad Ali, the car lot philosopher who had suggested that heightened scrutiny of Muslims since Sept. 11 was only natural -- "If you are bitten by a snake, you are going to be afraid of a rope" -- did not seem himself as he sat down in his tiny office off the showroom floor.

He had proved over the course of many conversations to be a man of good humor and wit. At home one Sunday, he had punctuated a family discussion about patriarchal customs by breaking into an Archie Bunker impersonation. At the lot, he had laughed along with colleagues when they warned customers that, if they didn't buy a truck, "Muhammad will light his shoe."

On this April afternoon, however, he seemed subdued.

"A lot has happened," he said.

Two months earlier he had made a trip to Pakistan to visit his 90-year-old mother. At McCarran International Airport here, a snag had developed. As other passengers filed aboard the jetliner, Ali was held back. Twenty minutes passed.

"What is taking so long?" he asked.

"We have to get your clearance from Washington," he was told.

Ali, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, was receiving the rope treatment. His reaction?

"It worked both ways. It was kind of ..." He began to grope for the right words. "You feel, uh, degraded, you know, that they want to check you out. The other side is that, you know, some Muslim people with the name of Muhammad did it." He meant the Sept. 11 hijackings and attacks. "And I don't want that my plane should go down too."

At the opposite end of his flight, Ali arrived at the family home in Lahore and was greeted by his sister. A nurse was dressing his mother, whom he had not seen in a dozen years.

"Just give us some time," his sister told him, "and I'll call you in."

A few minutes passed. There was a commotion. Someone scurried to a neighboring house and brought back a doctor. She disappeared into his mother's room for a moment and then approached Ali.

"Your mother died," she told him.

He had been home for 10 minutes.

"I never even said hi," he said.

*

For Fatiha Rahane, the shopkeeper from Morocco who sold head scarves, or hijabs, but did not feel spiritually prepared to wear one daily herself, 12 months was just long enough for a dream to take root, flower, wither and die. In April 2003, Rahane signed a one-year lease on a storefront in a Charleston Avenue strip mall and opened Nada's Fashion for Less, a store named in honor of her mother-in-law.

This would be her first business. Since coming to the United States, Rahane had worked as a beautician on the San Francisco peninsula and at a computer company's calling center in Las Vegas. Her husband, a Palestinian immigrant, worked as a cable installer.

Rahane's original plan had been to sell high-quality casual clothing, along with a small sampling of traditional Islamic wear. This changed when the wholesaler she trusted to stock her shop supplied her with nothing but bargain-basement clothes and cheap-looking knockoffs of popular brands.

"I was naive," Rahane said, explaining that she had purchased the first lot of clothing without examining it.

Stuck with racks of lackluster merchandise, she changed course and decided to concentrate more heavily on what she called "ethnic" wear. She stocked half the store with clothing that met the Islamic criteria for modest dress: head scarves, shawls, long gowns, robes and blouses. These she selected herself and with care, displaying an array of different styles from India, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

"I'm trying to get a little bit of everything," she said. In the classic formulation of business success, she sensed there was a need in Las Vegas and was determined to fill it: "We don't have any store that caters to Muslims."

She became a familiar figure at Friday prayers and special mosque functions, showing clothes out of her trunk, posting handbills in the entrance ways.

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