Books·Canada Reads 2020

Read an excerpt from Canada Reads winner We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

Amanda Brugel successfully defended We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib on Canada Reads 2020.
We Have Always Been Here is a memoir by Samra Habib. (Viking Canada, Yuula Benivolski)

Amanda Brugel won Canada Reads 2020 defending We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib.

We Have Always Been Here is an exploration of the ways we disguise and minimize ourselves for the sake of survival. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and later, as a refugee in Canada, endured racist bullying and the threat of an arranged marriage. In travelling the world and exploring art and sexuality, Habib searches for the truth of her identity. 

Read an excerpt from We Have Always Been Here below.

I hadn't set foot inside a mosque since my late teens, when I broke my nikah and dissolved my marriage to Nasir. I'd been swiftly shunned by the mosque aunties, who, taking on the role of spokespersons for Islam, ruled that my actions made me a Bad Muslim. Suddenly there was no place for me in that sacred place of worship that had once been a source of comfort and stability. Worried I'd be a bad influence on their daughters, the aunties watched my friends like hawks to ensure that none of them would so much as respond to my "Assalam-o-Alaikum" greeting. Worst of all, they made my mother feel as though she'd done a bad job raising me. My rebellion had been a direct challenge to that central tenet of Muslim households: parents and elders know best.

Suddenly there was no place for me in that sacred place of worship that had once been a source of comfort and stability.

When we moved to Canada, the mosque had been my mother's refuge, a place where she wasn't judged on how she looked or dressed. Kneeling on the spongy pink-and-green carpeted floor of the mosque's dingy basement — the area designated for women while the men prayed in the airier and more welcoming space above — was where I would ask Allah for guidance, just as my mother did. There was a kinship among the women who occupied that space together, as many of them resented being treated as second-class citizens within their own faith. Our only access to any ideological dialogue about the verses of the Quran came by way of a TV screen projecting what male elders deemed worthy of our discussion. Women were not asked to share their thoughts on how the teachings of the Quran played out in their lives. So for that kinship to be broken, for those generous embraces that once cushioned us to be taken away, was especially devastating.

One of the reasons I had sent El-Farouk an email introducing myself and asking to be part of the Friday congregation was that I missed being in the presence of other Muslims. I used to look forward to attending mosque with my parents and sisters. Getting ready together was one of the few family rituals we brought over with us from Pakistan. My mom would spend hours getting my sisters and me dolled up, as though for a red-carpet entrance. She would oil our hair the night before with Dabur Amla hair oil — a staple in many South Asian households — and secure our thick curls in a tight braid so that after we washed it the next morning our hair would gleam for days. Similar care went into our outfits, each shalwar kameez brightly coloured and carefully ironed. Only the trendiest ones, which relatives and family friends had brought back from Pakistan, were worn to mosque.

I longed for a non-judgmental spiritual community where I could meet others like myself.

Some of my most treasured childhood memories are of Islamic traditions that brought me closer to my family, such as breaking a light fast with cousins in Lahore — fasting for just part of the day to feel a sense of camaraderie with the grown-ups, who fast until after sunset during Ramadan. Even now, nothing makes me feel more centred than listening to a beautiful recitation of the call to prayer, whether I'm in my Toronto apartment or the crowded streets of Cihangir.

But for most of my twenties, Islam felt like a parent dishing out conditional love: I had no right to call myself Muslim because I'm queer and don't wear the hijab. After more than a decade of deprivation, I was spiritually hungry. Although I maintained a private relationship with Allah, I longed for a non-judgmental spiritual community where I could meet others like myself.

This excerpt is taken from We Have Always Been Here, copyright © 2019 by Samra Habib. Reproduced with permission from Viking Canada.

The Canada Reads 2020 contenders

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