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Private Moments in the Public Eye

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

It became a routine of sorts to ask Rahane, whenever paths crossed, if she had begun to wear a head scarf in public full time.

“Not yet,” she would say, a bashful smile playing across her face.

“Soon, soon.”

Though Rahane had been raised a Muslim, it was not until she immigrated to the United States that she began a thorough study of Islam. She was listening every day to the taped lectures of a popular scholar: “He shows us how to respect others, to share love. He teaches that we have to treat neighbors well. Which is, you know, Islam. That’s what Islam is. That’s why I like it. I think it’s wise.”

Rahane believed that once a Muslim woman began to cover herself, she should never go back, lest it be seen as a failure of spiritual commitment. When she was ready, she vowed, she would be willing to risk even death before she removed her hijab.

On this last trip, the door to Nada’s Fashion for Less was locked in the middle of the day, the store empty of people. Its “Grand Opening” banner still hung from the roof, the edges ripped by the wind and the once-bright orange coloring grown pale after a year in the Las Vegas sun. In the window where Rahane had displayed her best silk gowns and shawls, there were a few halter tops, four pairs of sequined short shorts and a sleeveless black cocktail dress, prices slashed.

A fire had struck the strip mall, destroying a far wing of it. Half the parking lot was fenced off to make room for demolition equipment. A receptionist at a medical clinic next door said Rahane was in the process of moving her store because of the parking crunch. Her customers, she explained, sometimes were forced to park blocks away: “And they had a certain clientele, you know,” she added, offering only a raised eyebrow as elaboration.

A few days later, another stop at the store found Rahane in the back, packing boxes, head uncovered. The receptionist’s version had not been quite accurate. Rahane was not moving her shop; she was going out of business. Yes, she said, parking had been a problem. More than that, though, there simply had not been enough demand for her clothes.

Maybe it was because after Sept. 11 many Muslim women preferred to dress in a less conspicuous fashion. Or maybe the Islamic community in Las Vegas wasn’t large enough to support a store like hers. There was, she said, one more possibility.

“I heard also because I am not wearing a scarf, you know,” she said.

A wounded expression shot across her face and she cast her eyes downward.

Did she mean, she was asked, that because she herself did not wear a hijab -- not out of religious indifference but because she considered wearing one a sacred act that required careful study and heartfelt conviction -- that Muslim women would refuse to buy their hijabs from her?

She nodded.

“Someone told me that anyway,” she said.

*

Muhammad Khan, the security guard who stopped using his first name in public after Sept. 11, unsettled by the cringing reaction it sometimes caused in people, was more optimistic when he sat down outside the same Starbucks where he had been interviewed the previous spring.

Back then, he had described the terrorist strike’s aftermath as a time of almost overwhelming loneliness. Khan said he felt dwarfed by the unfolding events, which included losing his nest egg in the stock market’s plunge and having his car searched by authorities. He felt as though he were standing beneath a mountain that could crash down on him at any moment.

“Here I was and here” -- he waved a hand high over his head -- “was the mountain. At one point, when I was looking up against the mountain, I thought I just could not take it anymore.”

Now, for the first time, he sensed things had begun to improve for Muslims.

“I think people are getting a kind of idea,” he said, “that we are also regular human beings.”

And what gave him that impression?

He chuckled.

“They don’t jump as much when they hear a Muslim name.”

Khan said he had begun to use his full name again -- “not 100%, but it is still better than it was a year ago.”

That was not to say the year had passed without pain.

On a summer Saturday, he’d taken his son, Talha, now 9, into the desert to ride horses, their favorite pastime. An inquisitive boy who wants to be a veterinarian, Talha had peppered the wranglers leading the ride with questions about the ways of horses and desert reptiles.

On the drive back, Talha fell asleep in the back seat. Coming into the city, Khan quietly pointed out an only-in-Las Vegas enterprise: a giant cement building that advertised itself, prominently, as an “adult superstore.” Just as Talha had inquired once about the nature of the gentlemen’s clubs he had noticed from the back seat, Khan said, he also had asked his father on a previous riding trip about this store. The answer on both occasions had been the same.

“Again, I told him it was a bad place,” Khan said. “A place where they sell alcohol and things like that.”

During this particular Saturday excursion, as it happened, Khan missed a telephone call from his older brother in Pakistan. He decided to wait and return the call after a family outing to the Grand Canyon. When they got home a week later, there was a message waiting: His brother had collapsed of a heart attack and died.

“That’s how life is,” Khan said. “You think everything is perfect, you are out horseback riding, you are going camping in the Grand Canyon, and then all of the sudden ... “

Khan had talked frequently about moving away from Las Vegas -- before Talha grew old enough to puzzle out for himself the vagaries of gentlemen’s clubs, adult megastores and other Sin City enterprises. In this last visit, though, there appeared to be a crack in his resolve. What had happened was this: To Talha, Las Vegas had become home, and he was thriving here.

The boy had earned placement in a school program for gifted students. He had fallen in love with baseball. He also had become a politician, winning a seat on the five-member school council. He still was learning to recite the Koran from memory, but he also had made friends among what his father called “American kids. They come to our home and play the Game Cube with him, all the video games.”

“This is the only city he knows,” Khan said. “This is the only city that he has seen since he is speaking and talking and everything. Sometimes he talks about his views. He will say: ‘Oh, I love this city very much. When I grow up, and I become the mayor, these casinos and all the bad places, they will be gone.’ ”

*

Atif Fareed, the commercial pilot who left Las Vegas for Florida last spring, reported by telephone that, by and large, the move had worked out well. Though he misses the Muslims of Las Vegas, “I don’t miss all that brown. I like the green here.” He bought a house on five acres and, when not flying jetliners, plays the role of gentleman farmer -- growing tomatoes and okra, fixing up the place.

“Home Depot,” he said, “loves me.”

A leader in the Las Vegas Muslim community, he became active in Florida as well, working with a national organization that looks after the civil rights of Muslim Americans. On his mind this day was the war in Iraq: “American Muslims are associated with it, whether we choose to be or not. We have opinions on the war. The vast majority of American Muslims do not want the war in Iraq.

“Now, as things are unfolding, with all the negative news, it just reinforces in my mind that this was an unnecessary war. No good comes out of war.”

He spoke of the American contractors ambushed in Fallouja, their charred bodies displayed like trophies before a cheering mob: “Here were human beings acting like animals. To show disrespect for the dead is very bad conduct. It saddens me to see people doing that to Americans.”

At the same time, he noted the photographs of abused Iraqi prisoners circulating in the media: “There is evil on all sides. There are bad people on all sides. Hate only begets more hate. It’s just a sad story. We Americans are supposed to be the champions of human rights. We criticize China and Cuba, but when push comes to shove we do the same thing. We lose the moral high ground.”

And then he offered a personal tale.

One Friday night while flying he received a telephone page from the FBI. Agents in Florida wanted to speak with him at once. He called back and arranged to meet the next Monday morning. At home Sunday, he received another call. The agents wanted to see him immediately.

“What is it about?” he asked them.

“We don’t want to talk on the telephone,” he was told.

Fareed put on a jacket and tie and told his rattled wife, “If I’m not back in four hours, call a lawyer.”

There were three agents in the cramped FBI office. The air conditioner was turned off, and Fareed estimated the temperature must have been about 90 degrees. “Sorry about that,” he recalled one of the agents telling him.

For nearly three hours, they ran down a long list of mundane questions: Where did he work? Was he married? Children? Only one question did he consider substantive: Had he been asked by any Arabs or Muslims to teach them to fly airplanes? He had not.

Finally, angered, Fareed said he’d like to ask the agents a few questions: Did they consider it part of their duty to protect Muslim Americans? Did they know that hate crimes against Muslim Americans were on the rise, but that the victims often were wary about taking their complaints to the FBI?

“You say the eyes and ears of the community are what law enforcement depends on,” he said he told the agents. “Well, I know I don’t even have a speeding ticket on my record. I know that I am a law-abiding citizen. And here I am on a Sunday afternoon, on very short notice, talking to you. I don’t have a problem with talking to you. But a lot of people do. You have done this so many times to so many people.”

After the pilot finished, the lead agent delivered a cold retort of sorts: That’s all fine and good, but would Fareed be willing to submit to a lie detector test?

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the story was that Fareed chose to tell it at all. The far more common response among Muslim Americans to a visit by the FBI seemed to be one of muted shame. Fareed explained: “The fact that a policeman even talked to you is an embarrassment. Because good people, the police don’t talk to. The Muslim American community has the lowest arrest rates, the lowest crime rates. So in our community, even being talked to by law enforcement is something that is looked down upon.”

For himself, a trusted pilot with the backing of a national organization and access to its lawyers, the brush with the FBI agents amounted only to “one week of high blood pressure. But if I was a ninth-grade-high-school dropout, working as a cabdriver, making maybe $35,000 a year, I would not have access to lawyers. I would not know what my rights are. I would be in very bad shape.”

And so, Fareed said, “I decided I am going to speak up. I am going to break the silence. Look, we are law-abiding Americans. What do you want us to do? I am not going to change my religion. I am not going to change my parents. What do you expect me to do?”

*

And so this final tour among the Muslims of Las Vegas pressed toward conclusion, with a surprise or two still left to come. Zafar A. Anjum’s office door at Jama Masjid was locked. One Muslim who dropped in for prayers thought the imam might be away on vacation. In fact, he was in California on a job hunt: The scholar who had spoken so excitedly about the challenges he faced in Las Vegas -- steering Muslims toward the straight path in Sin City -- had decided after two years to move on.

It was left to Khalid Khan, the community leader who had recruited Anjum, to explain: “He is looking for something in the academic line. He is a very learned man, and he is trying to find a job in a teaching institution. From Day One, he wanted something more in academia rather than having to do the routine things -- like leading the prayers, taking care of the mosque -- because he is a religious scholar, because he has the knowledge.

“We will find someone else.”

Ahmed Monib, whose bid to join the FBI stalled for reasons never explained, had begun since the rejection to delve more deeply into his religion. There was some irony in this. During the FBI’s background check, one agent had asked more than once about Monib’s Islamic practices -- as if to suggest a devout Muslim might be more prone to terrorism, an implication Monib found disturbing.

Now he had begun to study the prophetic traditions, seeking to push himself further along the Islamic spiritual journey that begins with learning the rituals, evolves into a belief in the prophets and their teachings, and reaches full flower at a point called “beautification,” a level of enlightenment in which a Muslim can see God in everything.

He had become convinced that Islam’s difficulties in the world had taken hold because too many Muslims, fixated on ritual and politics, had lost touch with the true traditions of their faith. Over Sunday brunch, he explained: “I realized that when you look at all the great people in history, what they changed were people’s hearts first. That’s what Muslims have got to be doing, and we have got to start with ourselves. Part of what we have lost is our sacred heritage, the prophetic traditions.

“We don’t appreciate our own religion. We don’t have a really deep sense of love for it, other than it being something like a crowd at a football game: ‘Hey this is our football team and we are going to cheer it on.’ It has been pat and superficial, always about correcting some slap in the face to our Muslim dignity, as opposed to really having a dignity to begin with, a strong moral character.”

Monib was not certain how he would react if the FBI changed course and reoffered him a position. Of his unexplained, last-minute rejection, he said: “Surprisingly, it doesn’t bother me at all.” And then, first in Arabic and again in English, Monib uttered an Islamic prayer: “God is sufficient for me. In him I place my trust,” to which he added his own salty postscript: “And screw what anyone else thinks.”

Diba Hadi, the Las Vegas social services executive who screamed herself hoarse arguing with the Afghan Embassy about whether a woman’s testimony was worth only half that of a man, was overwhelmed with work and, in lieu of an interview, sent an e-mail. She had received a promotion, she said, while on the side completing course work toward a doctorate. She was beginning her dissertation.

“My emphasis,” she wrote, “is in conflict resolution.”

Mustafa Yunis Richards, the bellhop-turned-imam who had explored seemingly every religion known to humankind before bumping into a Muslim on his bus commute, an encounter that led him into the Las Vegas Islamic community, said it had been “a very good year.” In addition to his role as imam at Masjid Haseebullah, he now worked part time at an Islamic information center across from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

His duties were varied -- delivering meals to the homebound, collecting clothes for the poor, mopping the floor, answering questions about Islam and Las Vegas from students, strangers and Muslim travelers. He received a stipend, but what seemed to excite Richards more was the white Plymouth van parked outside. It belonged to the center, but it was his to drive.

“I’m off the bus,” he said. “I am off the bus.”

And what of Iqbal Khan, the casino security guard who for decades traveled the world as a merchant seaman, exploring its religions, devouring history books, searching, as he put it, “to find all the truths”? On this last visit, he had one more adventure to share.

A few months earlier, he had traveled to Pakistan. He took a side trip to North-West Frontier province to visit his father’s grave. This is where, in Khan’s description, the “kook-ies” of fanatical Islam have taken hold, a place less than hospitable to Americans. He had outfitted himself for the trip in ethnic clothing and had stopped shaving.

Still, it was not long before Khan managed to talk his way into trouble, just as he had years before when he encountered Palestinian militants in port, made a few impolitic comments about their military capabilities and wound up being chased by a mob.

“I almost got kidnapped,” Khan said of his latest escapade, beaming.

He had stopped for sodas at a cafeteria. The talk at the table turned to politics -- “to Bush things,” he said, “to Iraq things.” He tried to keep quiet but could not contain himself.

“I said: ‘You know, if Iraqi people have any brains, they have the chance of a lifetime. We taxpayers are going to build them everything -- everything -- and they are going to get it free. If they have brains they should work with Americans, not against us.’ ”

Whispering is not Khan’s way, and every ear in the room seemed to have heard.

“Oh, they just blew up,” he said.

A debate was on -- Khan versus everybody else in the cafeteria.

“America wants to take over Muslim countries,” they told him.

If that was the case, he shot back, the United States need only lob in a few missiles from a safe distance, “and when you are wiped out then we can come and take over.”

But he was an infidel, choosing to live in the corrupt United States.

“You are saying that because we didn’t move back to your country, we are infidel?” he answered. “If you are talking that we are not Muslim, you are not Muslim. Because in Islam you cannot tell anybody about his belief. You people forget who you are. We have not forgotten. We pray five times. We have more mosques in the United States than Pakistan. We have more freedom as God-believers.”

And so it went, ever louder, until a man in a turban rose and made his way to Khan and suggested, “We can kidnap you.” He said this in a tone that was utterly persuasive.

“Now my heart starts banging,” Khan recalled. “Now I tried to analyze the situation. It’s a tribal area. They are cuckoo. There is no police. There is no Army. There is no 911. Nobody will know if they take me. So I sit down and slowly, slowly try to change the subject.

“How are your crops this year growing?

“Was there a lot of rain?”

After two hours, “I said bye-bye, shook hands” and backed out the door.

Khan said he would not be traveling to that part of Pakistan any time soon.

*

Las Vegas was still outrageously Las Vegas, and yet a few subtle changes from a year ago caught the eye.

In the Las Vegas Sun, a proposal to clean up the city’s racy signage received front-page coverage. The Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino, which had decked itself out in American flags amid the anti-France hysteria of the early war period, once more was flying French tricolor flags alongside Old Glory.

Many neon marquees that had flashed patriotic themes a year ago now offered get-well wishes to a magician who had been mauled by a tiger. At the Splash ‘N Dash car wash across the street from Masjid Haseebullah, a signboard that a year ago carried a message of support for U.S. troops now proclaimed, “This Is Car Washin’ Weather.”

And inside the little mosque, as he had on the first visit of this enterprise, Aziz Eddebbarh mounted a small wooden riser in the front of the prayer room, wearing the same white gown of finely spun wool, and prepared to deliver the Friday khutbah, or sermon.

At dinner the night before, he had described with enthusiasm his plan for bringing an institute of Islamic study to Las Vegas, a center for scholarship, lectures and other activities designed to steer Muslims toward the deeper realms of Islamic knowledge.

He also delivered a dollop of good news from his campaign to play matchmaker between Muslims and other Las Vegans: He had been invited to join a rotation of priests, rabbis and ministers offering prayers at meetings of the Las Vegas City Council.

Now to the dozen or so Muslim men arranged on the rug and a handful of women gathered in a side room -- the crowd would triple in the half-hour it took him to finish -- Eddebbarh brought a message of duty, courage and love. He reminded these Muslims that the people most often tested in their faith were prophets.

“Why were they tested? To give us an example, to show us how we can withstand a time of crisis. We think we have it bad” -- the darting looks shot by co-workers, the knocks on the door by the FBI. “Some people, you know, think that we are oppressed here in America, that Muslims are oppressed all over the world. Well, if you think that, you don’t know history. You need to go back and read history.”

He made reference to the trials of the earliest Muslims:

“Has anybody put a big stone on your chest in the middle of the Arabian desert, 120 degrees, 130 degrees, asking you to denounce your religion, asking you to defend your prophet, asking you to replace your God?

“Has anybody done that to you?

“We should be ashamed of ourselves. We have been afforded the freedom to worship. We have been afforded the freedom to do anything.... And what have we done? Allah has given us the formula,” and here he recited a passage from the Koran in Arabic: “The formula is to worship him, to have patience and perseverance. Patience and perseverance.”

He turned to the temptations of the day, listing several of Las Vegas’ most profitable sins. “People with addictions are worshiping idols,” he said, and it went beyond the standard vices. He talked about Muslims who rise at 5 a.m. to jog “so they can have a nice body” but who sleep through dawn prayers, or who go to work every day so they “can have nice fancy houses and cars” but who don’t make the required charitable contributions.

“Allah does not want any partners. If you are going to put Allah on your list of things that you worship, he does not want to be on that list. Allah wants to be the only thing in your life. I’m not saying give up everything and become a hermit. I am saying put Allah at the center of your life, guiding your life -- so that you are not cheating people, you are not lying to people, you are not oppressing people.”

He ended with this: “The whole thing, dear fellow Muslims, is about love. About loving Allah, and when you love Allah, that love is spread among the brotherhood, among the creation.”

As he spoke the last words, a brilliant, pulsing light poured in through a window on the back wall and surrounded Eddebbarh. The light turned out to be the sun reflecting off the tinted windows of a white stretch limousine. The limo had been parked haphazardly by its driver, who was rushing to make it inside the mosque before prayers began and the angels at the door, taking note of the punctual Muslims, closed their record books.

*

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.

SUNDAY: 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.

TODAY: From April to April. The twists life can bring in a single year.


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