I just visited Las Vegas for the first time. In all these years, the Sin City had never seduced me, in spite of its flashy façade screaming its invitation and its attractive moral slogan promising to keep everything I do a secret.
Opinion: The Sin City… whatever happened there … is honesty
The reason for my visit came from a very unlikely source: my niece’s husband, who works for a multinational company, came from Egypt for an international sales conference for the Middle/ Far Eastern branches. This event brought lots of Muslims to the desert city for an unlikely pilgrimage, where you could witness them clustering and strolling in the casinos at ease. I thought the casino should have offered foot baths and praying rooms to handle the influx of brothers.
It also occurred to me that for those who think Muslims are coming to America to change our Judeo-Christian values, relax a little. Gambling and other hedonistic pleasures are alive and well and becoming an American pastime. Americans spend almost $50 billions on gaming every year, more than they spend on movie tickets. Seventy percent of all gambling revenue comes from these wonderful, colorful entertaining slot machines, where millions of people spend most of their time trying their unlucky fate, cut off from time and modern life pressure.
I was very skeptical about what the Sin City could offer me, since I don’t enjoy gambling or rental sex. But something else was very refreshing about Las Vegas, something I didn’t find in other major cities on the east or west coasts like Boston, New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, those big shot cities with their tired sophistication and pretence of higher culture.
Las Vegas offers an honest artificiality. Vegas is in your face, brutally honest about its shallowness. They don’t promise you all these illusions that the free market commercial culture pretends every minute of our life. Las Vegas is the illusion itself and no denial of its artificial originality. Its Statue of Liberty doesn’t represent or claim liberty, and they see that it stays that way; the Luxor hotel, the Eiffel tower in little Paris Las Vegas, the Venetian, and Caesar’s Palace are all fake places to lure you for gambling and paid pleasures. Forget about the Eastern sophistication and pretension of the New Yorkers, Bostonians, or the fantasy pretense of the west coast encapsulated in Walt Disney and Hollywood beauty; those are provincial cultures, not real, all merely facades displayed in museums and culture centers. Las Vegas doesn’t exhibit culture in museums, doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it really is: a place for fun, gambling and for-profit sex.
“For me,” writes Marc Cooper, an author, “Las Vegas is the last, most honest place in America. Vegas is the American market ethic stripped completely bare, a mini-world totally free of the pretenses and protocols of modern consumer capitalism. Watching it operate with barely any mediation generates nothing short of an intellectual frisson.” Desert produced prophets and also Las Vegas after all!
Everything is happening on the strip inside these fancy cathedrals where commerce replaced culture. Even at the airport, once you pass the fake security, you can start getting busy gambling and the real terrorist you would face is your luck. You don’t see a church, a temple or a mosque, you don’t see a culture center, you don’t see government buildings—these are not even worth faking. This city is governed by another, higher moral code where they don’t care who you are and how much money you make. The slot machines and prostitutes don’t really care and give you the same treatment. Latino immigrants standing in the street with wallet-sized cards of naked young women promote the only literature of the Sin City to its visitors. You don’t have to pretend in Las Vegas, since whatever happens there is honesty. You don’t have to pretend that you are going to make it there, because you know you are going to lose, but so is everyone else. You don’t have to pretend to love someone to have sex, you know you are going to pay and there is no feigning otherwise. People come from all walks of life to indulge in an “honest” world of artificiality.
To have a true fake city like Las Vegas, you need to think and always admit the original source of the fakeness. In Vegas, unlike other cities, they don’t claim liberty with the original Statue of Liberty; they don’t claim history by displaying a fake Sphinx; they don’t claim sophistication by displaying the fake Venetian or little Paris; and they don’t claim greatness when they display a fake Caesar palace. The East Coast cities where they do profess sophistication and great cultural history also try claiming its origins. The New Yorkers didn’t give us modern life and liberty, the French did. The Bostonians didn’t give us sophistication and culture, the British did. And the Middle East gave us Jesus, not the Bible Belt in Texas that turned Jesus into a blond, white man.
So if you lost your heart in San Francisco or couldn’t make it in New York, go to Las Vegas, where you may find your soul.
Ahmed Tharwat is the host of the Arab American TV show Belahdan, which airs Sundays on MN public TV, 10:30 pm www.belahdan.com