A Straight Path Through Sin City
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.
Muslims who drive cabs, and many do, might whip out of the queue at McCarran International Airport and point their vehicles north by northeast toward Mecca for the prayers that devout Muslims offer five times a day, but they also cannot ignore the incentive to transport fares to the city’s burgeoning assortment of so-called gentlemen’s clubs -- essentially strip joints with better light fixtures.
Cabdrivers receive cash kickbacks for each customer they deliver, but to collect they must go inside, where dozens of young and all-but-naked women perform lap dances to loud music -- a scene to make an observant Muslim more than a little uncomfortable.
“I lasted about three minutes in the cabs,” said Fateen Seifullah, resident imam at Masjid As-Sabur, one of three mosques in the city. “It didn’t fit with how I was supposed to be living my life as a Muslim. I actually would try to talk fares out of picking up prostitutes or going to the strip clubs. I’d say: ‘Man, do you really want to go in there? Why don’t you just go home?’ ”
Muslims who take work in the casinos and hotels prefer jobs in the kitchen, housekeeping or administrative offices -- positions less likely to bring their religious beliefs into conflict with work duties. Not all can manage it.
At the Bellagio, a diminutive card dealer, bald with sad, coal-black eyes and dressed in a red vest, bow tie, starched white shirt and black tuxedo trousers, was beckoning players to his table:
“It’s very easy,” he said of the three-card game he was dealing from a mechanical shuffler. “All it takes is money.”
“Watch out,” a woman at the table warned. She was clicking a pathetically short stack of chips. “He’ll take your money.”
“Not me!” protested the dealer, a Muslim from Tehran named Mansour Yazdabadi, his voice rising in mock consternation.
He pointed a finger skyward.
“I’m not taking your money. He is taking your money.”
Whether he meant to indicate Allah or the casino overseers hidden in a booth in the ceiling was not clear.
For Muslims with children, the city’s oversexed signage can present a minefield of awkward inquiry. Muhammad Khan, a security guard from Pakistan, has a precocious 8-year-old son named Talha.
The father tells this story: As Khan was driving through town on errands one day, Talha piped up from the back seat with a question about something he kept seeing through the window.
“Papa,” the boy asked, “what’s a gentlemen’s club?”
Khan was not sure how to answer.
“All I could say was, ‘These are bad places.’ ”
In another two or three years, before Talha becomes a teenager, Khan said, he intends to move his family to a more staid city. Maybe Boise, Idaho.
Muslims who live here sometimes find it necessary to explain themselves to those who don’t. “Some other Muslims,” said Muhammad Ali, a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, “are like: ‘Oh my God, you live in Las Vegas? What’s wrong with you?’ ” He smiled. “The sly rebuttal is, ‘I like a challenge.’ ”
Imam Seifullah, who was a boy when his family moved here to escape the gang troubles of Compton, was talking one day about Muslims who stray from the straight path and take to gambling and drink. Sometimes, he said, it becomes necessary to place the wayward brothers on a bus with a one-way ticket out of town.
Why would Muslims want to play with fire at all? he was asked. Why not move to, say, Alaska?
“If you’re an addictive personality,” he said, “and you move to Alaska, you’ll have problems with fishing every day, and it will become like your god, you know. So we have to learn -- that’s how we strengthen our faith -- we have to learn to practice our beliefs in a difficult environment sometimes.
“And don’t think,” the imam went on, warming to his theme, “that our struggle here won’t be mentioned, won’t be preserved in history. We believe that it will -- as pioneers who contributed to the establishment of Islam here in Las Vegas and in this country.”
When they discuss living in Las Vegas, many Muslims will mention the Islamic concept of jihad. Typically they open with a disclaimer: Contrary to popular use, the Arabic word does not equate to “holy war.” They say holy war is a Christian coinage, an artifact of Crusades-era propaganda. Rather, jihad derives from the Arabic root word meaning to struggle or strive.
The struggle can take on many forms -- actual combat, under explicitly prescribed conditions, being but one of them. In its most common application, jihad refers to the internal battle in individual Muslims to overcome evil inclinations, the fight to stay on the straight path as set down in the Koran and through examples and teachings of the prophet Muhammad.
Most Muslims will refer to a specific tradition, or hadith, from the life of Muhammad.
“The prophet,” said Zafar A. Anjum, spiritual director of the Islamic Society of Nevada and a scholar held up by Las Vegas Muslims as the last word in town on all questions Islamic, “was coming back after some fighting. So he addressed his companions, and he said that what you have been doing is the fighting of the lesser jihad, the little jihad. And now you are going back to your homes, so be prepared for the biggest jihad, the greater jihad.
“And they asked, ‘What do you mean by biggest jihad?’
“So he said, ‘While you are at home, you have to fight all the evils and the temptations.’ Well, this is the biggest jihad.”
With the allures of the Strip providing obvious subtext, Anjum, a native of rural India who knew little about Las Vegas when he was offered a position here, was asked if those who confronted a more arduous jihad received a greater reward in the afterlife.
A sometimes impatient-seeming man, Anjum brightened and smiled.
“Yes, yes,” he said, his voice high-pitched. “The person who is living in this environment, he will get more reward as compared to the person who is living somewhere in the desert and he has no temptations.”
So Muslims in Las Vegas believe they have taken on one of the greatest of the greater jihads?
Questions to ask: When is the bomb going to explode? Where is the bomb? What kind of bomb is it? What will cause it to explode? Why did you place the bomb? What is your name?
-- “Bomb Threat Checklist,” posted April 2003 in Las Vegas mosques
Muslims may make their required daily prayers anywhere -- at home, in an office or lunchroom, even in taxicabs. Extra rewards, however, are believed to go to those who pray communally in a mosque. This is especially true of Friday afternoon prayers. In Las Vegas, Muslims gather for the prayer sessions at any one of half a dozen places.
The largest mosque is Jama Masjid, on Desert Inn Road at the eastern edge of the city. Last year it underwent an overhaul, adding tall minarets that can be seen from the Boulder Highway, fresh landscaping and a second-floor prayer room for women.
Masjid As-Sabur, often referred to as the “black mosque” because of its largely African American congregation, is in a ramshackle neighborhood across Interstate 15 from the downtown casino district. It offers free lunches every Sunday, drawing a long line of down-and-outers, many of them wearing faded T-shirts and caps that bear the logos of casinos. Looming behind this forlorn scene is the sand-colored expanse of a casino, the Lady Luck.
Friday prayers are also held at a public library, a private Islamic children’s academy and in the student union of the University of Nevada. There, through plate-glass windows, the prayerful can watch private jets roar by every few minutes on their final approach to nearby McCarran, hauling in high rollers for weekend romps.
Finally, there is Masjid Haseebullah. This tiny mosque, a converted bungalow, is on the city’s northern frontier in a neighborhood of droopy ranch houses and occasional desert lots, a neighborhood not yet overrun by the red-tiled subdivisions pouring like floodwater across the Las Vegas Valley. Muslim teenagers call it the Little Mosque on the Prairie.
It was at Masjid Haseebullah, on the first Friday in April of last year, that this journey into the Islamic community of one American city began. On that day, the conflict in Iraq had reached what seemed at the time a pivotal point. “U.S. at Baghdad’s Front Door,” proclaimed the banner headline in the morning Las Vegas Review-Journal.
All of Las Vegas seemed to be flying American flags -- flags draped from apartment balconies, flags pasted inside storefront windows, flags aglow on the flashing neon billboards of the Strip. The Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino, no doubt sensitive to anti-France sentiments loose in the land, was decked out in more red, white and blue than Dodger Stadium on opening day.
Directly across the street from the mosque, a sign at the Splash ‘N Dash car wash declared, “Our American Troops Are Awesome.” Inside the mosque, the atmosphere was muted and palpably tense. The new war had made Las Vegas Muslims uneasy about those people who might not care to draw distinctions between a law-abiding American Muslim and a loyal soldier of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“Who is watching the cars? Do we have someone watching the cars?” a worried voice asked from a kitchen off the main prayer room.
Aziz Eddebbarh, the hydraulic engineer who is one of a handful of Las Vegas Muslims routinely picked to deliver the sermon on Fridays, was speaking at Masjid Haseebullah this day to a gathering of 30 people or so. It was a somber, sometimes agitated khutbah. He expressed dismay with the taking of innocent human life to advance a political cause -- be it by terrorists like Osama bin Laden, dictators like Hussein or Pentagon war planners.
“We all speak of human dignity and the sanctity of human life,” Eddebbarh said. “The Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists. We all are aware of the divine phrase ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Yet we all kill.... To many of us, only the lives of those who are like us are worth defending.”
Reciting first in Arabic, then English, he sprinkled in pertinent verses from the Koran, and then with some passion added: “We have heard again and again in this country the phrase ‘collateral damage.’ We have heard innocent citizens are just collateral damage. We have heard of preemptive strikes. We have heard of Israelis occupying Palestine for 35 years to protect their view of history. What does this tell us? It tells us that in some people’s minds all people are not equal.
“But the divine message is that every single life is precious in the eyes of the Lord, that all people are created equal.”
At this point he began to quote, not from the Koran, but from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
Eddebbarh is a tall, handsome 48-year-old. He emigrated from Morocco in the 1970s to study hydrology. He married a flight attendant from Minnesota, who became a Muslim seven years ago. They have two sons. One plays lacrosse for the University of Nevada, Reno. The other is a tight end on his high school football team.
Courtly in manner, unfailingly earnest in every encounter, Eddebbarh over the course of a year would seem more and more like a dogged matchmaker, determined to bring together two otherwise distant parties -- in this case, Islam and America.
“What motivates me,” he explained one day over lunch, “are two things. I love Islam as a religion. And I love America and its people. And I think there is much misunderstanding between the two.”
In his view, both sides are culpable. He blames jingoistic American politicians and pundits, along with conservative Christian preachers, for exploiting a general lack of knowledge in this country about Islam, for playing “on fear.” Before the Berlin Wall fell, communists were cast as the enemy to be dreaded.
“Maybe now,” he said, “it is the Muslims.”
At the same time, he went on, there are Muslims who might know the rituals, who wear the beard, who make the five daily prayers, who put on their right shoe before their left, all just as the prophet did, but who miss the larger Islamic values of social justice and human equality.
“When it comes to a lot of other stuff, they are very ignorant, especially of the fact that Islam is a religion of responsibility. You have a responsibility to every single thing that is in contact with you.”
In Morocco, he said, “the Islamic tradition is still there. I mean, a human being is a human being -- as the Koran says, ‘the crown of creation,’ honored by God. And that’s enough. A lot of people -- Muslims -- don’t understand that.”
After that first prayer service, Eddebbarh had provided an introductory overview of the Las Vegas Muslim community. He described it as one that had grown rapidly in the last 15 years or so, fed largely by an influx of immigrants, many of them poor refugees from the world’s more troubled reaches -- Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia, Western Africa, Pakistan, Albania, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many of the community leaders, meanwhile, tended to be doctors from India and Pakistan.
The small number of mosques, Eddebbarh said, and the often sparse attendance on Fridays did not reflect the true size of the Islamic population in the city, since a hefty majority of those who consider themselves Muslims rarely make it to congregational prayers. There were, he said, many reasons for this: post-Sept. 11 wariness, workaday demands, the influences of Western culture and the Las Vegas lifestyle.
Now it was his turn to ask a question. Why Las Vegas? Why not explore Islam in America in a city with a more prominent Muslim population, Chicago, say, or Dearborn, Mich., or even Los Angeles? This question would crop up in nearly every interview; the response became almost formulaic.
The size of the community was right: large enough to produce a diversity of backgrounds but not so large as to allow Muslims to fragment -- as they tend to do in bigger cities -- along racial, national and factional lines.
And there was, admittedly, the symbolic value of Las Vegas itself, a caricature of Western decadence. Here is a city that merrily traffics in every variety of fruit forbidden in the Koran -- and, for that matter, in the Torah, Bible and the Book of Mormon.
Eddebbarh did not disagree. “Living here,” he said of the sinful aspects of Sin City, “you get immune to it.” He offered an Arabic proverb.
A stable boy, he said, once was approached by townspeople appalled by the smell of the surroundings. How can you stand the stink, they demanded to know. To which the boy, who rarely left the stable, replied: What stink?
Before Sept. 11, many Las Vegas Muslims had been content to remain more or less isolated from the American mainstream, ignored by the media, their heads ducked safely beneath the ridgelines of public discourse. The terrorist attacks changed all that.
“We were a back-page community,” said Atif Fareed, a commercial pilot who spoke on the condition that his airline not be named. “Nine-eleven brought us to the front page. And we were not, in my opinion, ready for such an onslaught. We took a few hits.”
Two months after the terrorist strikes, Eddebbarh, in his capacity as spokesman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Southern Nevada, visited the editorial writers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and sought to drive home the point that Islam was a religion of peace and social justice. For his effort, Eddebbarh was ridiculed in a Sunday column, depicted as a naive fool, ignorant of world history -- or at least the columnist’s version of it.
Perhaps because of such experiences, some Muslims here never would seem comfortable with an outsider in their midst taking notes from the back of the mosque, asking questions. The behavior of a few sometimes bordered on hostility. One day a reporter was met at the mosque door by a surly man who demanded, tauntingly:
“Who got bombed this time?”
What did he mean?
“You people,” he said, “you only come around after something gets blown up somewhere in the world. That’s the only time we ever see you. So what got blown up this time?”
And yet, for every wary Las Vegas Muslim, there were many more who opened their hearts and homes, eager to explain the Islam they knew and counter the religion-of-the-sword caricatures they saw presented routinely in news accounts and the rip-snorting sermons of televangelists. One by one, they would step up to swat at stereotypes.
Did you know, they would ask, that in the context of his time and place, 7th century Arabia, Muhammad was an emancipator of women, not a patriarchal enslaver? Or that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs?
They would speak longingly of a day when their religion, with 1.2 billion adherents the second-largest in the world and the fastest-growing in this country, might be embraced as part of the American mainstream, unburdened with the stigma of being the latest installment of society’s “other.”
Again and again, as if almost by script, they would point out that the whole of Christianity was not held culpable in the atrocities ignited by the Rev. Jim Jones in the Guyanese jungle, was not employed as the fundamental explanation for the madness of a Timothy McVeigh. Why then, they would ask, must the twisted works of Bin Laden and other terrorists be hung around the neck of Islam and all Muslims?
“On Sept. 10, I was a good guy,” said Fareed, originally from India, who has been flying commercially for 25 years. “I became a bad guy on Sept. 11.”
This was on a fine Saturday afternoon in the early spring of last year. For reasons that involved his work, Fareed had decided to move his family to South Florida. Eddebbarh, Fareed’s friend and fellow Islamic “ambassador,” as Muslims here frequently called the duo, was holding a farewell picnic on a green in the pristine planned community where he lives.
Teenagers and younger children played volleyball while mothers -- many covered in gowns and scarves, or hijabs -- watched from the shade. A couple of dozen men sat at concrete picnic tables discussing politics and the war -- Hussein’s statue had been toppled a few days before -- as they ate from paper plates filled with lamb, beans and fruit.
As the festivities wound down, Fareed moved a short distance away, put his back to the trunk of a young tree, and offered his own account of Sept. 11 and its aftermath. His aircraft had been on the ground at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport when the terrorist strikes occurred. Within hours, he was tracked down by an FBI contact he had made in Las Vegas as part of his community outreach efforts.
“He called to check up on where I was,” Fareed said. “I guess he wanted to see if I was on the ground, if I was dead or alive. Maybe,” and here the pilot, a compact man with close-cropped hair and a dashing mustache, cracked a small, sly grin, “maybe he was worried about me. I don’t know. I don’t know what his intentions were. God knows.”
Five days later, Fareed was flying again, sometimes with only two or three passengers aboard. In those early, fretful days, he would stand at the cockpit door to greet passengers one by one, making sure they saw his name tag. He did not want anybody to be alarmed when, after takeoff, he intoned from the locked cockpit in his slightly accented English: “Greetings from the flight deck. This is your captain, Atif, speaking.”
At home in Las Vegas, Fareed gave talks and interviews, explaining Islam to suddenly curious, if leery, audiences, trying to create distance between his religion and the terrorists who attacked in its name.
“Osama bin Laden doesn’t speak for me or my religion,” he would tell them. “His intention was evil, and he used Islam to, in his mind, justify this evil. He is not the first to use religion to justify evil. And he will not be the last.”
At a high school lecture, Fareed recalled, a boy of about 16 interrupted, hissing, “You can say whatever you want to say, but you Muslims are here to kill us, the infidels.”
“I wanted to say to him,” the pilot went on, “that he had been watching too much TV. It was very tense, and I wanted to turn down the tension.”
Instead, he asked for a show of hands: How many in the audience knew what he did for a living? None did. He told them he was a commercial pilot, flying aircraft not unlike those that had been hijacked. After the gasps subsided, he suggested it quite easily could have been him at the controls of one of the doomed planes. And he presented the students with two possible scenarios to consider.
“Scenario A: Mohamed Atta comes into the cockpit with his box cutter. And I say, ‘Hey, Mohamed, I’m your fellow Muslim brother.’ He says, ‘Oh, I cannot kill a fellow Muslim.’ He drops his box cutter and says, ‘We’ll have to come back and do this some other day.’
“Scenario B: Mohamed Atta comes into the cockpit and I tell him I’m a Muslim and he says, ‘Too bad, sucker.’ And he takes his box cutter and he slits my throat, and he takes over the plane and he runs it into a building.”
The more plausible scenario, Fareed trusted, was obvious, but he spelled it out nonetheless:
“Mohamed Atta did not care if the pilot was a Muslim or a non-Muslim. He did this for political ideology, not religion, and his political ideology was stronger than his self-instinct for survival. He was going to kill anybody or anything that got in his way, including a Muslim pilot.”
One thing he still wondered about, Fareed said now, brushing grass off a pant leg. To maneuver jetliners at full speed into a skyscraper required piloting skills that could not have been learned simply flying simulators and single-engine prop jobs. The hijackers must have taken some advanced training from somebody, somewhere. Before he could go on, his musings were interrupted.
The singsong voices came from tennis courts below the grassy rise where Fareed sat. A rug had been thrown down on the green court surface, and 10 or so of the men were arranging themselves in rows to face north by northeast, toward Mecca.
“Atif, come down.
“Prayers, Atif. It’s time for prayers.”
Today: Living in Las Vegas. The challenges--and anticipated rewards--in trying to stay on the straight path.
MONDAY: The faith. What Las Vegas Muslims believe and how they sometimes disagree among themselves.
TUESDAY: After Sept. 11. How the events of that day and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq altered lives.
WEDNESDAY: The path to Las Vegas. Two Muslims, born a world apart, and their remarkably similar journeys.
THURSDAY: From April to April. The twists life can bring in a single year.
About This Series
In an effort to depict the lives of American Muslims in an extraordinary time, staff writer Peter H. King and staff photographer Genaro Molina spent a year among the Islamic community of one U.S. city -- Las Vegas. From April 2003 to April 2004, they periodically visited the city’s mosques and Muslim homes, workplaces and social events.
ON THE WEB
This series and more photos will be available this week at latimes.com/vegasmuslims.