For the next year, NPR will take a musical journey across America, which is one of the most religiously diverse countries on earth. We want to discover and celebrate the many ways in which people make spiritual music — individually and collectively, inside and outside houses of worship.
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. He closes his eyes, holds one hand over his ear, leans into a microphone and sings out the Arabic words in extended phrases.
“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 Mohammad 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 get him arrested on a sidewalk in Los Angeles in connection with a bombing plot.
“I’m not a terrorist,” he pleads.
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 L.A.-area mosques, as he’s done since he was 8.
To Inspire And Awe
In Muslim countries, the call to prayer is broadcast throughout the city from the tops of minarets; in non-Muslim countries, as a courtesy to neighbors, it is chanted inside mosque walls.
The call to prayer is not music, per se. Music is not allowed in the mosque. But the five-times-daily prayer call can be musical. Ideally, a muezzin is sought out for a voice that inspires and awes — a voice like an instrument.
“When you hear a beautiful voice, it connects the soul to the divine in a way that words sometimes cannot do,” says Jihad Turk, a friend of Ben Youcef’s and president of Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school in Southern California.
Ben Youcef, with his Aladdin-like good looks and mellifluous voice, has the goal of becoming Hollywood’s most recognizable Arab actor — the next Omar Sharif — just so long, he says, as he can remain true to Islam.
“The Muslim community doesn’t have leading men or good guys,” Youcef says. “As a kid, I used to watch Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Denzel Washington. None of those guys are Muslims.”
As for the tensions between the world’s Mosaic religions, Ben Youcef has an allegory that he draws from his home turf.
“Think of Wilshire Boulevard as Christianity, Santa Monica Boulevard as Islam and Montana Boulevard as Judaism,” Youcef says. “Take any of those boulevards and they lead to the ocean, which is God. We’re arguing over 15th Street, but all these roads lead to the Pacific.”