In her debut memoir, author Samra Habib writes with lucidity and sensory depth, taking care to maintain the specificity of her experience without resorting to cultural absolutes. We Have Always Been Here traces the author’s childhood through her early adult years, navigating multiple spaces and identities, from her fears and joys growing up as an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan under President General Zia-ul-Haq to the complexity of her identity as a queer Muslim in Canada. Given the extraordinary challenges she has encountered, one might easily expect bitterness in Habib’s retelling, but quite the opposite is the case – Habib writes through a lens of compassion, hope, and ever-widening circles of understanding.
One of three daughters, Habib paints a rich picture of her life growing up in Pakistan. She maintains a challenging but loving relationship with her father, with whom she shares a passion for architecture and interior design. Her mother appears as a portrait of resilience and complexity: she manages to throw Habib a birthday party even as riots break out in the family’s neighbourhood.
Habib’s tale also resonates with the responsibility of being a child thrust into the position of having to grow up fast: when the family arrives in Canada, it falls to her to communicate in English with the national authorities. This is a heartbreaking insight into the burden children carry when they become the go-betweens for their newly immigrated family – children must take on the role of speaking for parents who, in their home countries, were capable, eloquent, and apparently able to handle any situation.
Displacement is felt deeply in the body and the heart. Habib’s experiences attest to the double exile of not being able to return home but not quite belonging in her new country. She writes about making money selling roses to strangers and seeking refuge in an ESL classroom, and highlights the systemic barriers that new immigrants face, emphasizing the shifts she felt within her own family dynamic: “[It] seemed we’d simply traded one set of anxieties for another. Sure, we were no longer afraid of being killed by religious extremists on our way to school, but not knowing whether we’d be able to make next month’s rent didn’t ease my mind either.”
Perhaps one of the most encouraging trajectories in Habib’s life involves the evolution of her relationship with her mother, who had arranged a marriage to a cousin when Habib was a teenager. Habib suggests that her mother truly felt that she was doing the best thing for her daughter; while it would be easy to judge the older woman for her decision, Habib recognizes the limitations of what the “best” really means in situations in which women cannot make choices for themselves. “I wonder if my mother ever dared to imagine what her best could look like,” Habib writes. “Did she ever have the luxury to envision a best made up of decisions that were good for her without feeling selfish and guilty?”
The marriage to her cousin failed, as did another to a kind man Habib loved but was not in love with. Following these relationships, Habib confronted her own queerness, finding solidarity on the streets of Japan: “How far I’ve travelled, to arrive at the simple truth about myself.” Imbued with a newfound sense of pride and ownership of her identity, Habib returns to Toronto and finds a path and purpose at the city’s Unity Mosque, where she is inspired by fellow queer Muslims. Habib’s empathetic willingness to withhold judgment toward her mother’s earlier attempts to force her into a role she was not comfortable with provides her with the foundation to forge a new relationship as a queer woman, one built on humour and honesty: “[S]he’d ask me the same questions she might have asked if I were dating a nice Muslim boy: Do they come from a good family? Are they respectful? Do they make you happy?”
Habib embarks on an international creative photography project, centering the voices of queer Muslims from Turkey to Toronto. One of the most haunting passages in the book addresses her recollection of the night Donald Trump was elected president of the U.S., with all its negative implications for queer and marginalized communities. Habib writes of waking up in a hotel room in North Carolina, bracing herself for what was to come: “When I awoke, Trump’s victory had gone from hypothetical to almost certain: the nightmare was real.”
At a time when it’s easier – and often preferred – to compartmentalize identities, Habib encourages her readers to confront their own assumptions about incompatible identifications and embrace the commingling of various intersecting nodes of being. A coming-of-age and coming-out story, We Have Always Been Here is a brave book, one that undoubtedly required great reserves of tenacity, vulnerability, and heart to write. It is to be hoped that readers will receive it in the same spirit.