By Hamza Hendawi

Egypt - On a perfect spring day, under blue skies and a gentle sun, 19-year-old Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz went on his first date. Holding hands and gently hugging, he and his girlfriend sailed up the Nile, free for a few hours from prying eyes and disapproving shouts.

They were among dozens of couples aboard the Sultan Ashraf, seeking escape from a city in constant conflict between Western influences and rising Islamic conservatism.

A Westerner would judge the Nile jaunt as wholly innocent. But by Egyptian standards it was daring enough to qualify as a lovers' revolt.

In a city of 18-million, whose famous cosmopolitan texture is taking on a deepening Islamic hue, the young are bombarded daily by a mix of Islamic messages and Western excesses on satellite TV and the Internet.

Only out here on the water, and at a few secluded spots, can they break fully free of an informal but rigid code.

Abdel-Aziz is a slender young man with hazelnut eyes and a goatee - a romantic, a poet and a dreamer.

"I am a lover of love," he declared as he sat next to his sweetheart.

As the boat sailed away from the skyline of office towers and finally into lush farmland, the couple dropped their inhibitions. He gave her a red carnation and then, in a gentle voice, read to her a love poem he had written in a red exercise book.

"I confess, my princess, that I had never tasted happiness or joy on this Earth until I met you," he read.

The girlfriend listened attentively. They had met a month earlier at their Cairo University college, and he had declared his love for her.

Arabic pop music blared from loudspeakers, and some of the women belly-danced, urging their dates to join in. Their writhing bodies in headscarves and tight pants - the look known as "Islamic chic" - seemed to crystallise the cultural clash unfolding aboard the Sultan Ashraf.

The battle for the soul of Arab youth is waged all over the Middle East, with many contrasts. In cosmopolitan Beirut, the sexes mingle freely. In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, they can't even meet.

Yet even the fiercest custodians of morality haven't reckoned with cellphones. Nowadays a boy and girl can stand in a busy Saudi mall, behaving like complete strangers, while text-messaging intimacies to each other.

Lack of social mobility leaves youngsters from poor families struggling to create a youth culture they can afford. What they want most is the freedom to date.

Yet dating is frowned upon for fear that it will lead to premarital sex - or at least the temptation to have it. For an unmarried woman, being seen in male company could wreck her marriage prospects.

The frustrations strike the religious and non-religious alike.

Even when a couple finally do get together, they'll hasten to inform anyone they meet that they are engaged, lest they be suspected of something unseemly.

Aboard the Sultan Ashraf, even as Abdel-Aziz was savouring his first date, it soon transpired that things weren't so simple. He felt obligated, he said, to forgo marriage until he had repaid his parents the money they were spending to put him through college.

"She is the one," he said of his date. Then he added: "But circumstances can push us apart." - Sapa-AP