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Prayers amid the pleasures

Special to The Times

The men hurry down the narrow road to the whitewashed mosque, waiters, janitors, busboys, cooks; they peel off their shoes, wash their hands and pray. Then they return to the glittering resorts, hoping that serving alcohol and glimpsing topless women will not push them too far from God or their families back home in the Nile Delta.

They are at once ubiquitous and unseen, a service industry army of matching uniforms and smiles, cobbling enough English, German and French to charm the tourists lying on beaches and lingering in polished courtyards. They move briskly in the moonlight, bowing their heads and speaking in perfected cadences:

“Good evening, sir. How are you, sir? Have a nice time.”

Learned phrases stretch only so far and much is left unsaid along the coast where the desert meets the sea. This poor country relies upon the tourist dollar, and Islam resides cordially, if uneasily, with a sunburned, thong-wearing, whiskey-tippling West.

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“I pretend I don’t see what’s happening around me,” said Hossam Helmy, a janitor in blue coveralls and a ball cap that read: Staff. “My religion protects me. It has kept me from sin. When I see a half-naked woman I feel guilty and I feel this is not my country anymore. But work is scarce and I need this job. What can I do except get used to it?”

Many of this city’s 310,000 tourism workers complain of humiliation, anger and temptations too salacious to ponder. Most come from rural provinces where tradition and the Koran rule strong and the lure of the forbidden is not as enticing as it is amid beach umbrellas and speedboats. Their villages offer no jobs and, on the advice of an uncle or a friend, they head south toward the resorts that glow along copper mountains tapering into gentle blue water. They live on the outskirts, often five or six to a room, and earn between $50 and $200 a month.

Paydays are not as sweet as they should be, as if the gain is ill-gotten, even as much of it is sent home to support their families. Some workers say they are scared of losing their faith. They prostrate themselves and pray, scurrying between shifts to the mosques, where preachers tell them that God blesses the working man and guards him against sin, especially during this month of Ramadan when Muslims fast, do charitable deeds and seek sanctity and humility by reciting verse from holy texts.

“When we serve liquor we feel it is wrong because we are Muslims,” said Alaa Sayed Ghorbeyya, a waiter who has worked here for 11 months. “Deep down inside we hope God will forgive us. It is hard during Ramadan. I know my job is un-Islamic, but I believe my good deeds will override that.”

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The mosque where many of the men pray is near the Ghazala Gardens Hotel, one of three sites targeted in 2005 by terrorist bombs that killed 88 people. The attacks, aimed at damaging Egypt’s $7.7-billion tourist industry, underscored the conflicting symbols that Sharm, as it is known in colloquial shorthand, has become: A shimmering seaside host of regional peace conferences that brings East and West together for business and play, the resort is at the same time regarded by Islamic radicals as a testament to a Muslim government capitulating to capitalism and liberalism.

“It’s not just a violation of Islam. It’s a violation of the Egyptian people,” said Mahmoud Saad, a hotel insect exterminator who earns about $50 a month. “The Sharm el Sheik and Hurghada resorts are not for Egyptians. They are purely for tourists. I don’t want this in Egypt. I don’t care what happens in other countries.”

Mahmoud Shaaban, a curly-haired fellow exterminator, said: “We can’t complain that we don’t want to see these things or we’ll lose our jobs. It’s the fault of President [Hosni] Mubarak. He doesn’t care about the unemployment in our hometowns. He doesn’t care about us. The president knows what goes on here.”

Many workers simmer with rationalizations on keeping the spirit clean. They twist philosophical riddles about the curious, maddening differences between civilizations. Such musings arise often, like the other day when several men waited in the tree shade on a corner for vans to take them to their resorts.

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“I don’t have to worry,” said Helmy, who has worked here for two years. “I’m a maintenance man. I don’t serve liquor.”

Another man, implying that alcohol sales help pay workers’ salaries, angrily asked, “But where do you get your money from at the end of the month?”

Helmy: “OK, let’s imagine this. I get a call to go and fix the air conditioner at the apartment of a belly dancer. I go and do my job. Is that not good money, just because it comes from a belly dancer?”

Eyes dart, faces sag, the men fall silent.

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Gamal Abdel Razeq listened to the exchange. He’s bused tables for three years and has no problem with bikinis or belly dancers. His shirt billowed in the breeze as three women strolled through metal detectors near the sea, where security guards sometimes joke with tourists that they better not have bombs in their beach bags.

“Western people have their own traditions and we have ours,” he said. “I make 1,000 pounds [or $180] a month. Back in my hometown I could make only 200 pounds a month working in a grocery. I don’t have a crisis of faith. I want to move to Europe. They have shorter working hours, better salaries and freedom of expression.”

On a strip of nightclubs and carpet sellers, some workers are more brazen, handing out brochures and offering shopping tips, eyeing girls and whispering under their breath, skimming as close to moral trouble as their faith and friends will allow. They can be spotted at other times reading the Koran in an alley, or gathering with other men to break the Ramadan fast in the minutes after dusk.

Ibrahim Sanea knows a conflicted soul when he sees one. A stocky, cleanshaven man in a pressed purple robe, Sanea is an imam at the city’s largest mosque, whose white walls and green-tipped minaret give it the aura of an ornate music box rising in the blurry heat of the desert. He sat in one of the mosque’s small rooms, where out an open door one could see the site for one of 80 new hotels under construction.

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“A lot of these young men come to me,” Sanea said. “They are troubled about working in this place, but they know this is the only option they have. God says a man must work. But if they are extremely uncomfortable, I tell them to quit.

“A city like this strengthens relations between Muslims and Christians,” he explained. “There are increasing numbers of foreigners marrying Egyptians in Sharm el Sheik, but, really, I don’t think cross-cultural marriages work. Too many problems.”

Mohammed would give his name only as Mohammed. He sweated in the heat, but his mustache was trim, his white shirt newly laundered. He is a security guard; he understands that purity is hard won and that laws, whether of this world or the other, sometimes get broken. He stood amid younger men near a corner and told them what they knew deep down.

“Only those weak in their faith have problems adjusting here,” he said. “They should pray to get stronger. When I came 11 years ago, I found it hard to adapt too. But I overcame it. You see it so much every day that it no longer arouses you. You become immune. It’s a test of will being here, staying away from evil.”

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He loaded a few of them into a van and headed off toward trimmed lawns, curling driveways and clicking metal gates.

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Fleishman is a Times staff writer and El-Hennawy a special correspondent.

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