I am back from an unintended sabbatical from my blog to tell you about an amazing book that I read recently: We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib. Subtitled “A Queer Muslim Memoir,” this book was one of those ones I devoured in a few short days and then felt sad when it was done, cursing myself for reading it so quickly.
Samra Habib was a new name to me when the publisher sent me a copy of this book, but you might have heard of her photography project Just me and Allah, which features photos and short interviews with queer Muslims from around the world. You might have also read her journalism in places like The Advocate and The Guardian.
Habib’s memoir is part of a growing literary collection (fiction and non-fiction) from queer Muslim perspectives. (Two other Canadian examples I know are God in Pink by Hassan Namir and The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan; the first is a novel about a gay Iraqi guy that won the Lambda award for gay fiction that year and the second is a YA novel about a lesbian Bangladeshi-American teen which I reviewed in Quill & Quire!) This is a super exciting and welcome addition to the LGBTQ canon which is still very much in need of diverse perspectives, i.e. those that are not white cis men.
The memoir moves mostly chronologically through Habib’s life. She starts with her childhood as an Ahmadi Muslim in Pakistan, where her family had to hide to stay safe in the face of Islamic extremists. I had heard of the differences and conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, but the sect Habib and her family belonged to was brand new to me! While Habib doesn’t go into ton of detail (this is after all a book about her life, not an educational tome on the complexities of denominations of Islam), I found this dimension of the early chapters of the book fascinating and informative.
What I loved was how Habib showed how her upbringing of having to constantly hide and pretend to be other than she was in Pakistan is carried over to her life after her family comes to Canada as refugees. The pattern of keeping secrets and lying, combined with sexism and homophobia, continues in Toronto where she feels forced for years to hide her body, femininity, and queerness.
In the chapters that take place in her high school years, where she is the most hidden, she writes:
“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ But when used to describe a woman, it implies she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right: her parents & all the men whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her desires. It’s also used liberally to slut-shame & put down a woman who shows autonomy or independence.
One day I would wear the title of azaad like a badge of honour.”
Her road of exploration and self-discovery is long, and there are plenty of obstacles: an unwanted arranged marriage, racist bullying, her family living in poverty, and relationships with the wrong people. She slowly, very slowly, approaches a potentially queer sexuality and the concept that her body is not a problem to be solved but rather something she can enjoy. On a solo trip to Japan, she tries out telling a man at a gay men’s bar that she is queer. He suggests she go across the street to the lesbian bar. She ruminates:
“I wasn’t quite ready for the girl bar yet. I was still processing the fact that I’d just come out to a stranger. I hurried off, as though recovering from a fall I hoped nobody had witnessed.”
Along that journey from being afraid of going to the girl bar to spearheading her groundbreaking queer Muslim photography project are many beautiful thoughts about art, activism, and spirituality.
The most moving chapter for me was when she describes finding her people—other queer Muslims; it made me cry. She writes about visiting an explicitly LGBTQ centered prayer space:
“A black trans woman in her twenties got up from the floor to give a beautiful recitation of adhan, the call to prayer. I discreetly surveyed the room to see whether anyone else shared my emotional reaction to this powerful reclamation and profound queering of the traditional call to prayer. I tried to hold back my tears—for the first time I was witnessing a version of Islam I could be a part of.”
Habib writes mostly sparingly, like a journalist, with occasional flashes of figurative writing that are all the more impactful because of their rarity. The effect is an intensely readable book.
I think my only quibble with this memoir is I wanted a little bit more in terms of character. (I’m the kind of reader who is really big on character, so this probably bothers me more than it might others). A few people in Habib’s life, like her siblings, felt very opaque; it felt strange to be reading a story of someone’s life as a young person and forget entirely that they even had siblings. Other people, like her mother, emerge as complex and fully realized. Perhaps Habib intentionally didn’t write much about certain people for specific reasons, who knows. But I wanted more!
Don’t miss this beautiful book about finding yourself and your place in the world.
Note: a few content warnings: childhood sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, unwanted teenage arranged marriage.