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Pallid revellers create conflict for Muslims Add to ...

At the end of his afternoon prayers, Marwan Ibrahim bends to kiss the green copy of the Koran he keeps with him at all times. Then he tucks it into a pocket, slips his shoes back on, and heads off to spend an evening in the world of the haram - the things his holy book forbids.

"God forgive me for what I see," the deeply devout 24-year-old says with a shy smile and a glimpse skyward.

As a receptionist at one of the dozens of hotels in this sun-kissed resort town that caters to tourists with a very different moral code from the country around them, Mr. Ibrahim sees more haram things in a day than many Muslims experience in their lifetimes.

If there's a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the Western one, here on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula is one of the places that division is most plainly in sight.

The Thank God It's Friday restaurant in the centre of town means very different things to its carefree customers and the Muslim staff who serve them.

Sharm el-Sheikh's sandy beaches are submerged year-round under a sea of white flesh - about two million visitors a year, predominantly Russians, Italians and Britons - soaking up every last minute that the sun stays in the sky and letting it fall on nearly every inch of their pallid bodies.

While women walking the streets in other parts of Egypt usually do so under at least a head scarf, if not a neck-to-ankles abaya, the Egyptian men who work in Sharm el-Sheikh and the country's other snorkelling-and-sand resorts often find themselves surrounded by bare European breasts and thong-clad bottoms.

The nights pose challenges of their own, as the newly sunburned masses come indoors for evenings filled with large quantities of alcohol, lewd pop songs and chance romantic encounters.

It's all catered to by 310,000 tourism workers such as Mr. Ibrahim, many of whom come from rural, conservative parts of Egypt.

Some find their work here as uncomfortable as the money is good.

"Our culture is not like that of the Europeans or the Americans. We can make friends with girls but we can't do these wrong things with them," he says in English that he learned studying social work at the Alexandria University.

He's also learning Italian, another major language in this resort town.

"The Russians are the worst," he adds, his voice falling to a scandalized whisper.

"All they think about is how to get drunk and how to have sex."

Like many employed by Sharm el-Sheikh's tourism industry, Mr. Ibrahim came here because there are few other jobs in Egypt - a country with vast youth unemployment - that pay as well as the tourism industry.

The salaries are good and the tips are better; few tourists think twice about leaving a 50-Egyptian-pound note (about $9) as a tip. That kind of money can buy a family a meal in Cairo or Alexandria.

Most who work here, however, are unable to afford the cost of a home in what a government advertising campaign calls the "Red Sea Riviera." They sleep in cramped dormitories, often five or six to a room, and send most of their money home to their families, while trying not to think too much about where it comes from.

The hardest part of the year is the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are supposed to fast during the day, do charitable acts and seek a closer connection with God.

But while restaurants in the rest of the country are shuttered from dawn until dusk, Sharm el-Sheikh's beachfront bars continue to serve food and liquor all day long.

"There's alcohol everywhere, the women don't wear proper clothes. It's not good. This is a Muslim country, but Sharm el-Sheikh is not for us," complained Ali, a 40-year-old father of four who drives a taxi with a miniature Koran dangling from the rear-view mirror.

He drives through town tsk-tsking at the bikini-clad women on the sidewalks, though he never turns down a fare. The Prophet Mohammed, after all, was a businessman, too.

Ali, who asked that his last name not be used for fear he would lose his licence to work, actually lives with his family in Cairo.

He drives home five hours across the Sinai desert each Friday and returns each Sunday morning.

It's clearly worth the trip: Ali asks $30 for the short drive from Sharm el-Sheikh's airport to the hotel strip in the town centre - that's a month's wages even for some professionals in other parts of the country.

Mr. Ibrahim and Ali are regulars at the Sharm el-Sheikh's newly built Great Mosque, where as many as 5,000 worshippers gather on Fridays to be reminded that, while they're surrounded by sin and temptation, they're not allowed to partake.

"The imam reminds us every Friday that we can't drink, that we can't have sex with women who are not our wife. A man must stay on the right course," said Gamal Eid, the mosque's director.

He's one of the few people in this town to wear the traditional Islamic robe known as the galabiyya.

Of course, there are many Egyptians who come to Sharm el-Sheikh precisely because of its lack of religiosity.

Many of the touts who linger around town selling souvenirs have no qualms about imbibing in the free-flowing booze. Some are astonishingly bold and have learned how to proposition women in a wide variety of languages.

Sharm el-Sheikh's reputation for Westernization and debauchery was cited as a motivation by Abdullah Azzam Brigades, the al-Qaeda-linked group that claimed responsibility after three suicide bombers simultaneously struck the resort in the summer of 2005, killing 88 people.

"We will not tolerate violation of our brothers' land of Sinai," the group said in a statement on its website after the attack.

The bombings were seen as an assault on President Hosni Mubarak's government, which relies heavily on the country's $7.7-billion tourism sector to create badly needed jobs and provide tax revenue.

But fears that such attacks would scare Western tourists away have thus far proved unfounded and the industry has continued to grow.

Finding a vacant room at one of Sharm el-Sheikh's resorts is a challenge again at any time of the year, and new hotels and villas are being constructed to meet swelling demand.

Mr. Eid, the mosque director, said he's often asked by conflicted Muslims whether it's right to work and make a profit in Egypt's sin city.

He preaches a sort of co-existence: Egyptians doing their jobs and living by their set of morals while the tourists pay handsomely to live by theirs.

"Without the tourists," he says, "there would be no Sharm el-Sheikh."

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

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