Book review: We Have Always Been Here

Before even starting Habib's memoir, I had the fortunate opportunity to hear her speak at last year's Toronto Queer Film Festival (TQFF). The book remarks on how rarely she sees people that look like her in queer spaces, I feel like that super often - as a non-binary Punjabi person, often read as a fat femme. And so on the day Habib and the host she was to be on stage, in conversation with, were settling into the green room - I heard femmes speaking Punjabi. My heart was filled with joy and I went and introduced myself awkwardly and eagerly. It was a wholesome kind of related moment that I wanted to document and share here before getting into the details of the text.

Throughout the first third of the text, I kept thinking to myself, "she's just like me"

Spoilers ahead and trigger warning for CSA (childhood sexual assault)
 

It was at her retelling of her experience of CSA that I felt my own body shut down, in realizing - she really is just like me. I had to take a pause for a few days. Her mother's response reminds me to that of my own mom's. I was overcome with familiar feelings of devastation of having a safe person fail you as someone that was supposed to protect you, and care for you as a child. Later again, when she's forced to wed her first cousin, her mother gaslights her into believing her compliance and silence were consent. With my own CSA experience, my mom went the log kya kehenge route, and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone or call the police on my predator first cousin, twice my age. When the repression bubbled it back up and my mom and I would fight, like Habib's mom, mine would accuse me of having failed in defending myself, and making my 'vexation' known.

Photo of Samra Habib at TQFF 2019, courtesy of Yann Gracia (he/him)

Despite the violence Habib experiences in her youth because of her parents, the reparations are wholesome. From her father's apology about the engagement, her parents affirmations throughout the second half, and her mom eventually asking 'how do you have sex' after Habib tells her she's queer, is an important narrative that needs to be shared just as much as negative coming out stories. And stories of racialized, religious and/or immigrant families that don't support their queer offspring.

This book felt really personal, and while the pace felt more sped up to me in the second half - I also felt more and more distant. And while I can relate to Habib's queerness, coming into herself on her own terms, untangling compulsive heterosexuality, and longing for community, I can't relate to her experiences of cruising, partying, and dancing - in her defence, this is something I can't relate to with most queers! As a sober queer with multiple disabilities, queer night life just isn't for me. However, something I felt appreciative of in the second half, was the inclusion of trans, gender non-conforming and non-binary people without us being an after thought.

Having been diagnosed with ADHD only a few months ago at age 28, I've been listening to lots of audio books, and it's my preferred method of consumption at the moment. A small annoyance I found with this text as an audio book was the narrator's Punjabi. There were so many tender moments lost at the unfamiliar pronunciation of the narrator, but on the other hand, their Arabic was amazing. Another thing that negatively stood out to me, was that on two occasions that I can specifically recall, when discussing other queer Muslims within her photo project, Habib refers to Black people as 'Blacks'. I always find that referring to a group of marginalized individuals in this way as coming off as dehumanizing, but I'm hoping it's just a matter of pragmatics.

All in all, I would say this text is an essential for anyone interested in learning about the narrative of someone who happens to be queer, Muslim, a minority within Muslims (she's Ahmadiya) and a creative. As Habib mentions time and time again throughout the book, Islam is not a monolith, and her coming of age as a queer Muslim femme telling the stories of other queer Muslims makes this book so special.