Reviewed by Linda Buchanan
This is the fourth of the Good Reads reviews of this year’s Canada Reads event held in Lennoxville on March 11 2020
Samra Habib is a journalist, writer, photographer and activist. She sprang into the spotlight in 2014 when she launched her photography project called ‘Allah and Me’. This project was created to document the life, existence and experience of queer Muslims all over the world. We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir is her first book, her story in her own words.
Habib was born and raised in Lahore, Pakistan. Her family is Ahmadi Muslim. The Ahmadi faith began in the late 19th century and was founded on principles of non-violence and tolerance for other religions. It is rejected by mainstream Islam as heretical. From a very young age, Habib was taught that revealing her faith was dangerous; she had witnessed enough violence that she had grown accustomed to keeping her identity hidden.
Habib describes her 7th birthday, when conflicts between Sunnis and Shias erupted into riots. Her parents returned to the house much later than expected, bringing others with them. Habib shared that birthday with strangers in need of safety. But despite the dangers and challenges her faith imposed, Habib grew up feeling the love of her parents, and this created the foundation for many of the reconciliations she experienced later in her life.
While Habib was still a child it became clear that if her family remained in Pakistan her father would be killed or jailed. So when she was ten, she journeyed with her mother and siblings to Canada. Her father arrived a month later. In her writing she sheds a light on one of the realities of refugee children, telling how she acted as her mother’s translator when they arrived at the border.
The first few years in Canada were challenging for Habib. However, she found herself in groups and places that gave her the freedom to learn and discover. In an ESL class, the room was full of people who had come from all corners of the globe. She was captivated by their stories of the journeys they had taken. High school also became a place where she was able to explore and be curious. Her high school in Toronto was a diverse place, and she discovered that bullying is less of a problem when everyone is a little different. However, even as she began to discover her own self, traditions practiced thousands of miles away followed her. At the age of 16, before graduating, she found herself in an arranged marriage.
At 19, following her graduation and having been accepted at her chosen university, Habib told her parents that she did not want to be married, and moved out of the family home without telling them where she was going. Because of the dissolution of her marriage, she became the center of rumors and was ostracized by her faith community.
The next decade was full of moments of liberation for Habib. After graduating from university in journalism, she found an editorial job, where she created relationships that helped her to grow, and found a chosen family that affirmed her very being. She began to try on different labels to see if they fit. The one she became most comfortable with was queer. She continued to be curious, focusing on learning while connecting with others in the LGBTQ community. She rekindled her relationship with her mother, who had opened a salon that became a place where reconciliation and love could grow. To mark a new phase in her life, Habib decided to take a trip she had long dreamed of. Ever since her ESL class, she had been intrigued by Japanese culture. Once in Japan, she became immersed in the queer culture there. There is a touching moment when, in a gay bar, she has a conversation with someone in Urdu, her mother tongue. Even though she was on the other side of the planet, she found acceptance within the queer community and felt a sense of belonging. Her time in Japan marked a turning point in her liberation; she was ready to go home and find her people.
The last third of the book is full of travels, relationships, encounters with strangers and beautiful moments of reconciliation with her faith. Now in her 20s, she had discovered much in the queer world and had learned a lot about her own self through these discoveries and experiences. But she had begun to feel isolated within the mainstream queer scene which was predominantly white, at times heavily male and often unsympathetic to religion. This changed when an invitation to the Unity mosque for queer Muslims in Toronto left her feeling once again accepted and seen.
As she reclaimed her Muslim faith, Habib became inspired to write stories about others like her. She knew that representation is important and wanted everyone to realise that LGBTQ Muslims like herself have always been here. She became an advocate for the rights of queer and trans people of color. Fear would no longer dictate her actions. She cast off what had been ingrained in her as a child and moved towards a fuller understanding of herself and the desire to help and love others.
Habib writes with passion. Her hope is to help others experience what she has had the privilege of experiencing: liberation from fear and prejudice, reconciliation with family and faith and acceptance of one’s true self.
This book is available at the Bibliothèque Lennoxville Library.