Last year a biology major at University of Texas at Dallas was joking around with his friends about starting a fraternity. To Ali Mahmoud the idea of sitting around drinking mango juice and reading the Quran didn't sound particularly appealing. But when Alpha Lambda Mu, the country's first Muslim fraternity, began recruiting last fall, 40 students rushed. Now, schools around the country are applying to create chapters. And local storyteller Dylan Hollingsworth is following the journey.
"When I found out that the first Muslim fraternity was founded in America, I wanted to spend a few days with them to capture their story in photos," Hollingsworth says. "But there's a much larger story here. They create the perfect vehicle to present a new perspective on Islam."
Hollingsworth is Dallas' storytelling solitaire. A patient photographer with a squalid story of his own, he takes time to learn the stories of his subjects and present thoughtfully, respectfully. Hollingsworth currently participates in a project that documents the last wave of Holocaust survivors, which sent him to Israel, then later to Palestine where he was surprised to find he was welcomed with open arms.
"I had a cathartic experience there," he says. "I figured because of American foreign policy people wouldn't be too fond of me. But I was wrong, people welcomed me everywhere. I came back to the states and Texas Christians said, 'Dude what's up with you? You're sharing photos of Muslims praying in the desert.'"
It seems close-minded that more than a decade removed from 9/11, Americans still struggle with an acceptance of an entire group of people, but for Hollingsworth that fuels the need to tell these stories. After spending just a few days with the members of Alpha Lambda Mu, he saw the importance of their story.
"I wish I could create a more balanced and a humanizing binding narrative about who our Muslim neighbors are," Hollingsworth says. "This story has a value that is bigger than me, and I'm just a facilitator. These are people who are misunderstood and I think the world is striving to understand more."
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The more time Hollingsworth spends with the students, the more he sees the value in the story he's bringing to screen. He says the stories are rich with romance, societal pressure, and identity struggles, but that at the core these are college students on the cusp of adulthood.
"It's come to my attention that a lot of people do not like Muslims and do not like me telling their stories," Hollingsworth says. "But for me it's simple. Do you want to be on the side of an America that lives in fear, where people are kept separate? Or do you want to live in an America where people are welcomed and given a seat at the table?"
Hollingsworth is still in the throes of filmmaking and is currently raising money on Kickstarter to fund the project, but the story has earned attention from The New York Times and he believes he'll be able to fulfill his vision for the project.
"Honestly the story that's coming out of it is even more important than I initially expected," Hollingsworth says. "I feel lucky to be telling it."