This lightly written fiercely intelligent memoir just makes you feel better about the world and goodness knows we need that now more than ever. So thank you Samra Habib for that. Habib is a beautiful writer, able to convey big themes, life in fact, in simple clean prose. This book is not just about sexuality and religion but also about migration and culture clashes, persecution, racism, the role of women, tolerance and acceptance. We Have Always Been Here is a moving read, calm, almost zen like in its presentation of Samra Habib’s own tempestuous story. All the more powerful for being measured rather than angry, readers will get the sense that whatever she has suffered Samra Habib has not just survived but thrived. There is no blame game here.
Most of all one has to admire the woman who wrote this memoir for her fierce independence and her clear vision from an early age that she wanted to be who she was (even when she was too young to figure out what that was). In Pakistan she did not conform to expectations but she didn’t when she moved to the West either, Samra is Samra. With that spirit she has lived her life as she wanted to, exploring herself, her environment and her relationship to it. Ultimately, it has allowed her to understand herself and to campaign for causes dear to her heart. Helping to establish an LGBTQ+ friendly mosque, she made peace with her faith.
There’s plenty of humour and light touches too:
“We both had shaved heads. . .” Samra admits in her case it’s because of head lice, she’s five at the time. The other person, a woman in Lahore, probably her mother’s age, mid twenties, had made a statement with her appearance; she rode a bike and talked to men as equals. It stirs something in the young child, perhaps rebellion or attraction, or maybe both.
“I’ve only ever been surrounded by women who didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives. There were my aunts, who would never be caught socialising without their husbands present– certainly not publicly.”
Samra’s female relatives did not drive, they had very little ability to express free will. Her mother only knew her father had changed her name from Frida to Yasmin when she saw their wedding invitations being sent out (he preferred the latter). Samra was the first daughter after several miscarriages, two more daughters followed. Relatives commiserated but her father told them to go to hell (a measure of his love but also his defiance and pride in not wanting to be pitied). Boys can contribute to the family income, girls require a dowry. The family lived in a one bedroom apartment in Angoori Bagh, a poor suburb of Lahore. Her father worked but her mother also knitted for money for the girls.
Samra reveals her jealousy at the attention her little sisters got, and at her rich cousin, Ishma, for her possessions, and shame at the praise she receives for being a dutiful sister. Perfectly normal childhood feelings but Samra demonstrates a mature understanding of them. There are plenty ordinary happy moments of childhood here.
On a darker note we see the poverty, and one appalling incident where she was left alone with a man when she was four, he sexually abused her. An incident telling for the reaction of her parents to the possibility that she might not be a virgin (??). Samra winds up comforting her mother rather than other way around but doesn’t blame her, she had her own hard life, she and her siblings were abandoned by their father:
“so my mother came of age knowing abandonment and neglect intimately. Her experiences taught her that as a woman, fertility, purity and beauty were the only currencies she could exchange for a better life.”
Following the incident the family got a young nanny for Samra but gave up eventually when her behaviour at being cooped up deteriorated.
The family were Ahmadis, a minority Muslim sect, ostracised and discriminates against in Pakistan. In 1977 they were declared ‘non-Muslim’ by President Ali Bhutto and were at times under attack by rioting Sunnis. In the late 1980s things got worse, in 1985 General Zia increased the pressure on the Ahmadi community. The family was forced to emigrate to Canada. The memoirs reflects on Samra’s schooling, her doubts about her religion, her religion’s doubts about her. The relationship with the family, an arranged marriage and extraordinary escape and braking away to go her own way. The jobs and people she met and the career she carved before opening up about her sexually and campaigning against intolerance and persecution. Her project for queer rights, her photography, an educational trip to Japan, and the influence of friends:
“Abi was my window into a queer world I hadn’t yet explored, and something told me that that was where I needed to be.”
A beautiful concise memoir that anyone could enjoy but I’m sure there are people who will take courage and comfort from this little gem.
Paul Burke 4/5
We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib
riverrun 9781529404869 pbk Sep 2019