2019 is the year of me reading more memoirs, especially those written by people like me. This memoir written by Samra Habib, a queer Pakistani-Canadian woman, falls very clearly into this category. And I am glad I got the chance to read it.
Title: We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir
Author: Samra Habib
Genre: Memoir, Adult
Published on June 4, 2019 by Viking
s y n o p s i s
Samra Habib was raised as an Ahmadi Muslim in Lahore, Pakistan. Living in a world in which her family was persecuted for their religious beliefs and constantly having her fate laid out before her for being a woman stuck with her as she grew up. When her family decides to leave Pakistan to Canada for a fear of being executed or tortured, Samra finds a whole new world. There, she felt conflicted between following her family’s plan for her of marrying as a teen or pursuing higher education. Samra begins an exploration of herself through art, sexuality, religion, and faith.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are my own and have not been affected by this.
Samra Habib’s story is an important and impactful one. She has gone through so much in her life and we should all definitely hear stories from people who, like Samra, have spent their lives chasing who they are and battling against hurdles that have been thrown at them.
Her story begins in Lahore, Pakistan. Samra had a fairly common childhood, were it not for the prejudice she and her family endured for being Ahmadi Muslims. I had never heard of this branch of Islam (I am still far too ignorant) and had no idea of the weight people of this faith carry with them every day in places such as Pakistan. The writer does tell us some things about the religion itself, but her remarks are always brief and leave something to be desired — but intentionally. Through young Samra’s eyes we don’t need to know why Ahmadis are persecuted, only that they are, which is unacceptable. A scene that struck me hard was the one in which Samra’s mother is lighting the candles on her daughter’s birthday cake while the protestors are violently knocking on their door because they know Samra’s family is hiding Shia Muslims, who were being “hunted” by a mob. It was such an intense scene that really pulled at my heart strings.
Once Samra moves to Canada, her life isn’t magically improved. The way the author highlights the prejudice and racism her family endures in Canada is brilliant. We see this new world of expected freedom and opportunity through the eyes of a dream-filled Samra and learn of all the ways her family is having problems adjust. Be it by needing welfare to learning English, the author takes us on a trip of what Canada is for foreigners.
One of my favorite aspects of the book was the way books and reading are framed. Samra, as a teen, was a huge reader and would devour anything she could get her hands on, despite the disapproving looks from her more conservative family members. To her, reading was escapism and a door to a brighter future. It filled her with dreams and hopes and it really resonated with me. Reading, for me, has played the same role during my teenage years, so seeing this connection between me and Samra, a girl completely different from me, was refreshing, touching, and endearing.
There is also quite a bit of feminist struggle in Samra’s memoir. Coming from a conservative household, Samra has seen what life means for her mother, and she knows, in a way, that her fate will follow the same route, more or less. When she learns at 13 that she is to be married to a cousin three years later, Samra’s conflicting views on women’s roles start to form cracks in the system and culture she has grown up in. It was a bold decision to depict an arranged marriage and an underaged marriage the way that Habib has, but I applaud her for it. These chapters were incredibly hard to read for her robbed teen years, even though her family allowed her to not live as a married woman until she graduated from high school. I felt for Samra and was reminded that this is something that is still very much alive.
Samra’s fight to further her education was also very empowering. Her biggest wish to get a university degree led her to break many family connections, and I don’t know if I could have handled things the same way she had. Samra is definitely a very brave person.
Another highlight of We Have Always Been Here is the way culture, family values and family relationships are portrayed: as fickle and fragile. Samra’s decision to live a more Western life (as well as her eventual discovery of queerness) lead to her being shunned from some circles in her community and rejected by her family. It was so heartbreaking to see Samra’s internal emotional conflict. However, what amazed me the most was seeing relationships re-flourish. As time went by, several wounds began to be healed, which was equal parts heartbreaking and beautiful.
Lastly, I really appreciated seeing Samra’s discovery of her sexuality. She went from not questioning her sexuality to labelling herself as “queer” and being open about her love for women and femme. Her road on this path is very clearly detailed and super honest and authentic. Through several chapters she walks her through this self-discovery process and tells us about her insecurities, desires, and wishes. This was, by far, one of the best parts of We Have Always Been Here.
The only reason why I am not giving Habib’s book a higher rating is because, at times, the pacing would be odd. I would lose interest in this magnificent story being told because I disconnected with the writing. At times, the writing felt like a big tangent, which I think usually happens anyways with memoirs for me.
All in all, We Have Always Been Here is a darling memoir that deserves a lot of attention and exposure. Pick this one up if you want to see the world from another perspective — you won’t regret it.