M. Junaid Alam
“Culture and religion and heritage can be a foundation for friendship. But I am a transient – I am liminal – I exist between cultures. You keep mistaking me for someone else: I am not Pakistani; I believe in God and the Prophet but I do not practice any religion; I am not a ‘regular’ American; I am only, as Thomas Paine once wrote, a citizen of the world. Which is to say, an exile from the world.”
– M. Junaid Alam,
M. Junaid Alam was an essayist, poet and activist whose young life was cut short by cancer on October 29 2014. At the time he left us he was thirty-one.
Junaid was a gifted political essayist who placed himself squarely on the side of aggrieved humanity. Writing came naturally to him, as naturally as breathing comes to us; he did not mull over what he wrote, and nearly always got his logic, grammar, style and tone right the first time. Political writing was his forte, but he did not dwell on appearances. His essays show that their author had an incisive mind that could quickly cut through the obfuscation of political discourse to get to the nub of complex issues.
Junaid was born in Karachi in February 1983, to parents who had emigrated from Dhaka during the civil war that split Pakistan in two. A year and a half later, he moved with his parents to Canada; they moved again in August 1987 to Massachusetts where his father took up a teaching position at Northeastern University. After graduating from Northeastern University with a major in journalism, he worked as a staff reporter from August 2006 to April 2007 for Sun Chronicle, a daily published out of Attleboro. In early 2007, after he married Lindsay Levesque – at which point they adopted a common last name, Levesque-Alam – they moved to NYC where his wife worked while preparing for a career in screen writing. In NYC, he worked for a while as a reporter for weeklies in Queens. After his ulcerative colitis worsened, Junaid gave up reporting for a career in communications, working for non-profits in the areas of women’s rights, health and education.
Junaid’s wife of six years ended their marriage in June 2012. This break unsettled him; shortly afterwards he also lost his job. In the wake of these setbacks, he found solace in a new passion for motorbikes. But he would not long enjoy ‘the liberating freedom’ – his words – of riding his motorbike on the freeways of NYC on weekend mornings. In late August 2013, a motorist knocked him off his motorbike, confining him to a wheel chair for several months. A few weeks after he had given up crutches for a walking stick, he developed some troubling symptoms. On April 12 2014, he was diagnosed with stage IV germ cell cancer that had spread to his lungs, spine, brain and heart. After initial treatment at NY Presbyterian Cornell-Weil, Junaid moved to Massachusetts to continue treatment at Dana-Farber in Boston. Sadly, the new rounds of therapy failed to arrest the cancerous growth in his lungs, and he passed away on October 29 2014. He was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery and Arboretum – in North Attleboro – in the shade of a Japanese maple. On the four corners of his headstone are inscribed four Qur’anic words, ‘adl, rahm, ikhlaas, and ihsaan – they translate roughly into English as justice, mercy, sincerity, and doing that which is good – that best describe his approach to life and to people.
The wheel chair did not confine Junaid to his apartment in Astoria, Queens. “I can’t wait,” he wrote to me in October 2013, “to start walking again – I’m dying to restart volunteering. And I want to do language classes again – this time French. Spanish just doesn’t appeal to me but French somehow resonates. And I want to go upstate to the Adirondacks.” In the same email he also he explained how he fights loneliness, “Now, I make it a daily habit to wheel myself to the heart of Astoria and simply watch people; it’s as necessary as breathing air. (…) There is so much of life to live, but it is so easy to bury oneself and avoid living it.”
Junaid was also wheeling himself all around Astoria taking photographs, several of which he posted on Flickr. “Photography is a real craft,” he had written earlier in October 2013, “and bears some similarities to writing – you have to frame the ‘subject’, edit to emphasize what matters, choose your colors and lighting carefully to evoke a mood, look for symmetry or pleasing asymmetry to catch attention. I’m sure this will inspire me to explore more of the country.” Some of the pictures he took mirrored his situation in life. “When taking pictures,” he wrote, “I naturally seek visual metaphors – the ‘escaped’ trash can is a metaphor for how I’ve escaped immobility through photography, the Halloween cobweb as a metaphor for how I’m newly entangled with my surroundings.”
Quite early in his life – as his teachers in elementary school remarked – writing was Junaid’s forte. The op-eds he began writing for the Sun Chronicle – the local newspaper in the Attleboro area – upon entering high school, also showed that he would lift his pen in the cause of justice. As a junior in high school, he wrote an essay, “What Do US History and Literature Teach US About Value Worth Dying For?” that won the first prize in the Skirball Essay Competition in 2000. This essay connected themes that are breathtaking in their range – including statecraft, wars, national interests, obligations of power, morality, human suffering, individual heroism, political hypocrisy and literature. This was before one of his English teachers introduced him to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, easily the most powerful piece of political writing from the liberation movements of the Third World in the 20th century. In Fanon and Karl Marx – in particular, his Communist Manifesto – Junaid discovered the conceptual tools for grounding his thinking and writing in class conflict and imperialism. Even before he had taken any college courses, Junaid began to call himself a Marxist!
On entering Northeastern University in Fall 2011, Junaid lost no time in entering the debates in the columns of The Northeastern News – the student newspaper – on the issues of US wars, terrorism, Israel and the Palestinians. Soon his writings began to appear in several leading online publications on the left. Starting in April 2002, at the age of nineteen, he contributed his first essay, “Blaming the Palestinians,” to Counter Punch, a leading outlet for radical critiques of America’s domestic and global policies. Over the next seven years CP published some 38 of his essays. Among other outlets, his essays on politics and religion also appeared on AltMuslim.com, Antiwar.com, Dissident Voice, American Muslim, The Nation, and Extra! (the magazine of FAIR – The Media Watch Group). At the same time, he served as a columnist and blogger for WireTap Magazine before it closed its doors, and was a regular contributor for Foreign Policy in Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies.
In March 2003, Junaid and Derek Seidman launched an ambitious project – Lefthook.org – “A Journal by and for American Youth on the Radical Left” – that ran from November 2003 to March 2006. They wrote that Lefthook would be “an online journal formed by American youth on the radical left whose aim is to promote greater discussion, debate, and consciousness among young people in America. Our purpose is to effectively expose and combat the inequalities and injustices produced by global capitalism in a relentless, principled manner. We welcome and encourage involvement and contributions from all sections of the radical left in an atmosphere free of sectarian infighting and conducive to critical discussion and Left solidarity.”
It is worth reproducing the journal’s mission statement in full:
“Our purpose is to create an open atmosphere of principled discussion and debate among American leftist youth including progressives, socialists, and anarchists in an overarching effort to radicalize the American political landscape.
We are interested in ground reports, historical interpretations, sociopolitical analysis, news commentary, all kinds of art, rap, poetry, plays, and so forth. But this is not just a journal. We also maintain a list-serv which serves not only as a conduit between editors and writers, but as an intellectual and political hub, to sharpen our understanding and coordinate ourselves. Moreover, we want to “keep it real” – to know what issues are important for youth, and keep open channels.
Hopefully with intellectual and financial support from youth and older more experienced radicals who want to fight the injustices deeply-rooted in capitalism and imperialism, the main aspirations driving the journal itself can lead to bigger and greater things, including print publications, national/regional meetings, teaming up with leftist publications and publishers, being represented in other conferences – the possibilities are limited only by our own collective willpower and determination.”
At some point after he moved to NYC, Junaid began to feel the call of the spirit. Although he had been raised by Muslim parents – and had attended the Sunday Islamic school in Quincy and Sharon – he had turned away from his religious heritage. Islamic rituals did not touch his spirit; and the ongoing spiritual journeys of Muslims that found expression in manifold Sufi traditions could not help him understand or come to terms with a world permeated by injustice. Two biographies of the Prophet helped to nudge him towards the path that led towards the heart of Islam; these were Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet, and Martin Ling’s Muhammad. It was the first book that touched him more deeply. He had written to me in July 2008, “I was very sad to come to the end of the Ramadan book; I wish it had gone on forever, and the Prophet was here eternally. Despite the intonations of Al-Fatiha [the first chapter of Qur’an that is the Muslim equivalent to the Lord’s Prayer], it is too easy to be led astray.”
A third book by Mustafa Bayoumi – How Does It Feel to Be a Problem: Being Young and Arab in America – connected Junaid to the experiences of young Muslims growing up in post-911 America. “On a political level,” he wrote in June 2008 after reading this book, “I have been fighting the hateful lies about Islam for years – but I was always somehow removed from it, not considering myself connected to Islam itself. I can feel my Islam growing inside me because after reading these three books, but this last one especially [by Bayoumi], I feel a new pain and frustration when I see the Islamic world in dire straits, either from fundamentalists or Western appeasers, or when I come across the words of the Islam-bashers.” This growing interest in the plight of Muslims found expression in a new blog that Junaid started in August 2011, CrossingtheCrescent.com that focussed on “Islam in America and America in the Islamic world.” This blog ran for some two-and-a-half years; it closed in March 2011.
Junaid was a prolific writer. Although he wrote very little after March 2011, the writings that I have been able to collect would easily fill three books of average length. After Lefthook.org and Crossingthecrescent.com closed, their domains were hijacked by content that mocks their name. Thankfully, however, these webzines can be accessed from the WayBackMachine at archive.org. In addition, since he cross-posted most of his writings, many of them may be accessed on a google search, using the search words, “m. junaid alam” or “m. junaid levesque-alam.” It is the aim of this website to slowly create a searchable archive of Junaid’s writings that will be freely accessible to the public. With luck, I also plan to put together some of his essays for publications in a book or two.