I just visited Las Vegas for the first time. In all my years in America, Sin City had never successfully seduced me, despite its flashy façade screaming its invitation and its attractive moral slogan — promising to keep everything I do there a secret.
But recently, I found myself in the heart of the beast.
I stayed at one of the big chain hotels, where a multinational company was holding an international sales conference for its Middle and Far Eastern branches. The event brought lots of Muslims to the desert city for an unlikely pilgrimage. They could be seen congregating and strolling in the casinos, at ease. I thought the casinos should have offered footbaths and prayer rooms to handle this influx of gambling brothers.
The thought also occurred to me that those of you who fear that Muslims are coming to America to undermine its Judeo-Christian values — you can relax a little.
Gambling and other hedonistic pleasures are alive and well and have become an American pastime. Americans spend almost $50 billion on gaming every year, more than they spend on movie tickets. About 70 percent of all gambling revenue comes from the wonderful, colorful, entertaining slot machines, where millions of people spend most of their time, testing their unlucky fate, cut off from time and the pressures of modern life.
I was very skeptical about what Sin City could offer me, since I don’t enjoy gambling or rental sex. But there was something refreshing about Las Vegas, something I haven’t found in other major cities on the coasts, like Boston, New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco — big-shot cities with their tired sophistication and pretense of “higher culture.”
Las Vegas offers an honest artificiality. Vegas is in your face, brutally candid about its shallowness. Las Vegas doesn’t promise the illusion of hope that our free-market consumer culture tries to peddle every minute of our lives. Las Vegas is the illusion.
The miniature Las Vegas version of the Statue of Liberty doesn’t seriously claim to represent liberty. The Egyptian-style pyramid of the Luxor hotel, the replica Eiffel Tower over the Paris hotel, the Venetian’s canals and Caesars Palace are all imitations — fakes to lure you in for gambling and paid pleasures.
Forget about the eastern sophistication and pretension of New Yorkers and Bostonians, or the fantasy ideal of the West Coast epitomized in Disney dreams and Hollywood beauty. Those cultural ideals are all merely façades. 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 sex for sale.
“For me,” writes author Marc Cooper, “Las 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.”
If the desert produced religion in the Middle East, the Las Vegas desert produced heaven on Earth!
Everything happening in the casinos on the strip, cathedrals of commerce, has replaced culture. Even at the airport, once you get through security, you can get busy gambling, where the real terrorist you will face is your luck. You don’t see a church, a temple or a mosque. You don’t see a cultural center or a government building. They’re not worth faking.
This city is governed by a higher moral code where no one cares who you are or how much money you make. The slot machines and prostitutes don’t care, either, and both treat you the same. Latino immigrants standing in the street with wallet-sized cards depicting naked young women promote Sin City’s only literature to its visitors.
You don’t have to pretend in Las Vegas; whatever happens there is honesty. You don’t have to pretend that you are going to make it there; you know you are going to lose, and so is everyone else. You don’t have to pretend to love someone to have sex; you know you are going to pay.
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 always admit the original source of the falseness, and make no claims.
In Vegas, unlike in other cities, they don’t claim true liberty with a Statue of Liberty; they don’t claim history by displaying a Sphinx; they don’t claim aesthetic sophistication with the replica canals of the Venetian. America’s great cities, in which they profess sophistication and deep cultural history, make the mistake of also trying to claim its origins.
But New Yorkers didn’t give us sophistication and liberty; the French did.
Bostonians didn’t give us modernity and culture; the British did.
So if you lost your heart in San Francisco or couldn’t make it in New York, go to Las Vegas — you may find your American soul.
Ahmed Tharwat is a public speaker and hosts the Arab-American show “Belahdan” at 10:30 p.m. Mondays on Twin Cities Public Television. He blogs at www.ahmediatv.com.