It is said, in Los Angeles, that Abdulwahab Benyoucef’s call to prayer is so lovely and so clarion that Muslims come to the mosque just to hear him. About three times a week, the Algerian actor — who has shortened his name to Ben Youcef — comes here in his traditional tunic to stand before the men kneeling toward Mecca.
“It’s a way to call people to come to worship God,” Ben Youcef says. “That’s the purpose of the adhan [the Arabic name for call to prayer]. I bear witness that there’s no God except God. I bear witness that Muhammad is a messenger of God. Come to what’s good, come to prayer.”
In his other life, the 34-year-old Ben Youcef is one of Hollywood’s A-list Muslim actors. Lately, because of his complexion, he’s been getting more and more generic ethnic roles. “Because in commercials,” he says, “a lot of times I’m actually playing a Latin guy or an ethnically ambiguous guy.”
On television and in movies, he usually plays cocky, conflicted young Muslim men. And, since 9/11, his characters have often been predictable. In one scene, on NBC’s Law & Order, his brown skin and Middle Eastern good looks gets him arrested on a sidewalk in Los Angeles in connection with a bombing plot.
The actor is asked how he harmonizes his life as a devout Muslim and a muezzin, a caller to prayer, with an actor who sometimes plays Islamic extremists.
“It’s not easy, I’m not going to lie to you,” he says in an interview in a quiet conference room above the mosque. “The bottom line is my Muslim friends have no idea what it’s like to be an actor, and my actor friends have no idea what is it like to be a Muslim.”
Ben Youcef says he has played terrorists, such as a Palestinian member of Black September in Steven Spielberg’s Munich.
But he’s also turned down roles that he says demean his community. He says he keeps his life in balance by reciting calls to prayer at the King Fahad Mosque in Culver City and other LA-area mosques, as he’s done since he was 8.