Internationally renowned journalist and photographer Samra Habib’s memoir We Have Always Been Here is subtitled (and marketed as) “a queer Muslim memoir”. Yet it’s much more than that.
The book opens by recounting her childhood as a member of the persecuted Ahmadi Muslim minority in Pakistan, followed by her attempts to fit in as a bullied refugee in Canada. From a religious marriage at the age of 16 to coming out as queer in her 20s, there’s a tremendous amount of emotional wisdom packed into each chapter. Her life has all the fodder of a riveting tale, but it is Habib’s narration of these events – tumultuous family relationships, grappling with both Pakistani and Canadian cultures, and her gradual coming out process as a queer woman – that renders her memoir so powerful. By the book’s later chapters, she’s attending queer dance parties in Tokyo and sex clubs in Berlin and re-engages with Islam through a queer-friendly mosque.
If it is the book’s aspect as a queer Muslim memoir that distinguishes it for marketing purposes, it is Habib’s engagement with a range of oppressions that provides its powerful moral compass: patriarchy and sexism growing up; racism and bullying upon arrival in Canada. Habib’s childhood memories are both sweet and heartwarming, yet don’t shy away from the repressive cruelties she’s experienced. Yet these reflections are coupled with compassion: she acknowledges the hurt her parents caused her growing up, but also the fact they loved her and simply did not have a model for parenting to draw upon that was not riddled with patriarchy and repression.
Habib’s style is compelling and intimate, thoughtful, and reflexive. She achieves an affective immediacy, which not only expresses her developing and shifting sense of self but helps the reader share a sense of what she’s feeling at these different stages of her life. Matter of fact in its presentation of difficult material — sexism, child marriage, emotional and sexual abuse — what’s most striking about Habib’s memoir is the sense of compassion with which she writes.
“It would be far too easy to villainize my mother and her behavior,” she writes. “But that is to assume she had the tools and the privilege to consider another future for her daughter. She was raised to believe that control was not something granted to women.”
Likewise, her father was raised without the tools to grow behind his own deeply ingrained forms of toxic masculinity. “He didn’t have the tools to understand the psychological impact his parenting had on my life – I couldn’t expect him to acknowledge his wrongdoings.” Habib’s thoughtful analysis isn’t merely a chronicle of injustices and oppression; it holds those responsible to account while also thoughtfully and compassionately considering the influences acting upon them. Her father, for instance – so ambitious and confident in his native Pakistan – underwent a significant psychological shift after moving to a country that still today fails to acknowledge or respect the abilities and dignity of its immigrants.
We Have Always Been Here is a work of tremendous beauty and wisdom. Habib’s memoir could easily have been bitter, harsh, righteously angry. But it’s not. It’s angry, resolute, and impassioned when it needs to be, but Habib complements the bitter memories with the beautiful ones.
There is a sensuous aesthetic to it, expressed in layers of taste, smells, and sights that evoke familiarity amid the turmoil and change. From waking up “to the warm and peppery smell of pakoras frying in the kitchen” to childhood motorcycle trips around Lahore with her father, “whiffing the aromas of cardamom, turmeric, simmering meat, and bubbling naan,” the narrative is an epicurean and sensory delight. Even in Canada, she finds solace in the beauty.
“[O]ften I spent time in the park alone, lingering among the rose bushes. The smell reminded me of lying in our garden back home…I would inhale the sweet, heady scent of the roses and touch their silky petals, and for a brief moment Canada felt familiar – like home. I could take refuge in the pistil, the anther, and the rosebuds, because there was continuity in those details. Roses I could be sure of.”
Habib’s journey through life is riveting, rendered even more compelling by a masterly balance of tone and pacing. The book moves quickly, propelled by a well-structured narrative and light and fluid prose. The narrative flows like honey, pooling and building tension around the difficult moments in her life, and then pouring forward once again in a burst of forgiveness, a moment of self-realization or a recognition of the need to move on.
Of particular interest is her engagement with Islam throughout the book, which assumes a key role in later chapters. Her relationship with her faith — what it provides for her and how she practices it — shifts over the years, and her powerful reflexive analysis of this process makes the book also an insightful spiritual memoir.
Toward the end, she begins attending mosque again after reaching out to Unity Mosque, a queer-friendly Islamic organization. The significance Islam plays in the lives of the other gay, lesbian, and trans Muslims who are part of this movement offers an important perspective on the broader importance of spirituality in contemporary lives. It’s fascinating to learn about how Unity Mosque offers space for its members’ spirituality while simultaneously respecting their broad diversity. There’s an important lesson here for all faiths, no doubt.
Habib’s later years have been occupied in part with a photography project she undertook with the aim of documenting and sharing visual narratives of Muslim lives that were more diverse than what she felt were being widely shown. She wanted to share photos of happy Muslims, of queer Muslims.
She’s traveled the world on this project, which has been exhibited internationally, and it offers a vital insight into the changing forms of the faith.
Yet change is an imperfect term, for as Zainab — a trans woman from Tunisia who was one of Habib’s photo subjects — reminds her, queer Muslims “have always been here.”
“[I]t’s just that the world wasn’t ready for us,” Zainab observes.
We Have Always Been Here is a beautiful book, a masterpiece of memoir that operates on many levels – political, emotional, spiritual. Harrowing at times, it is also heartwarming and inspirational. It’s a book that urgently needs to be read in the present moment, for as eye-opening as many readers will probably find it, it’s work such as this that has the greatest potential to open readers’ hearts. Zainab tells Habib during their photoshoot that in a world still marred by so much violence and hate, “In the face of the challenges, our sense of community and our shared aspirations for a better world should make us stronger.”
So should books such as this.