I never knew Djamal Atroune. He was a post-doctoral researcher in the same department I was later in as a non-tenure-track faculty member, at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, Georgia.
I learned only later that Djamal was from Algeria, with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the prestigious Joseph Fourier University in France. He came to the United States and to UGA as a post-doc in 1996, but the funding for the position ran out. When the funding ran out, so did the temporary work visa.
What’s a “precarious” faculty member to do in such a situation?
Djamal took a job selling cigarettes, gasoline, and lottery tickets at Lay’s Kwik Corner, on the corner of Lexington Road and Gaines School Road on the southeast side of Athens. Yes, really. He worked the overnight shift, 7 nights a week, with one night off every six weeks.
Most of us native-born academic types would have sunk into extreme bitterness at being Dr. Convenience Store Clerk.
Not Djamal. He developed friendships with those who came into the store, smiling and friendly, not raging at his fate. He took customers to breakfast after his overnight shift ended. He created a reading circle with his customers, too. He talked for hours with fellow staff.
Amid what others would see as adversity, Djamal grew bigger as a person.
Meanwhile, Djamal maintained another set of friends, from academia. He still hoped to get back into university life. With them he visited, played with their kids, and held intense discussions.
As the years passed, over a decade, the temporary convenience-store job became a permanent gig, but Djamal neither gave in to despair nor gave up his dreams. His friends remember his intense optimism.
But at 3:24 am on December 5, 2007, while reading a book at the counter, Dr. Djamal Atroune was murdered by a 29-year-old who was stealing a Powerade while on a robbery spree to get money to bail his girlfriend out of jail.
Djamal died on the way to the hospital. His murderer was sentenced to life in prison over a year later.
At the sentencing hearing, none of Djamal’s family members were able to be present. But a night guard from a nearby subdivision recalled how Djamal would give money out-of-pocket to the needy, and would give away hot dogs hot off the grill. The guard, who was one of two people to find him gunned down at the Kwik Korner, said:
“Djamal was something else. He was more than just a name — he was a real sweet, caring, sensitive and loving person.”
His friends held a memorial on the first anniversary of his death; I attended it, even though I didn’t know him. It just seemed like the right thing to do. Some of Djamal’s friends’ remembrances I jotted down and saved, along with the memorial brochure, for the past nine years. And now, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, it seems like the right thing to do to remember him in this medium.
Djamal Atroune is gone. So is Lay’s Kwik Korner, now just a hole in the ground. But “attention must be paid,” as we learn in Death of a Salesman, that profound assessment of America and its dreams. Djamal Atroune’s story is not Willy Loman’s, but it raises at least as many questions about who we are as individuals, and who we are as a nation.
The place to start, it seems to me, is by remembering Djamal, his dreams, his optimism, how he held his head high without holding himself above others — and pondering why this good man’s story did not end differently.