Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

We Have Always Been Here: A Conversation with Samra Habib


“We have always been here. It’s just that the world wasn’t ready for us yet.” Samra Habib ended her talk with these powerful words, quoted from a friend. Habib’s conversation with host Anna Shah Hoque was a poignant and thoughtful discourse on identity, culture, religion, and queerness. Habib’s memoir, We Have Always Been Here also addresses each of these topics. Although I have yet to read Habib’s work, one thing was clear: her writing is a visceral, sensory, emotive, and unflinchingly honest account of her journey towards self-acceptance and understanding.


As a woman who is both queer and Muslim, Habib has spent a lifetime working to answer a difficult question: how can one reconcile one’s sexuality with one’s religion when historically, these two elements have never peacefully coexisted? Further, Habib inqured, how was she to gain a concept of herself and her place in the world when the religion that so defined her did not even acknowledge that she, a queer woman, existed? Our identities shape us and shape our experience with the world around us. Habib shared her own difficulties with defining her identity in the face of cruelness and opposition. Her path has not been an easy one, but her discussion with Hoque exposed the beauty and understanding that she discovered even in the face of adversity.


As a writer and a creator, Habib’s passion for creative expression and connecting with others through art was a dominant topic throughout the night, and I suspect, her memoir as well. For Habib, art, memory, and the senses are intricately intertwined and inform one another deeply. Scent is a powerful sense for Habib, in particular. For her, scent is tied strongly to her memories, her family, and her connection with her culture and the South Asian diaspora. It is through the evocation of sensory experience and the honest conveyance of memory that Habib is able to connect with her readers and her community as a whole. Sense, she says, is key to storytelling in any capacity. It is what roots us and allows us to create those tactile and universal connections with others, uniting us in common experience.


Photography and the visual experience is also central to Habib’s creative expression and her way of understanding and defining herself and her world. Hoque and Habib discussed the fact that publications about the South Asian diaspora and the LGBTQIA community are often written by outsiders, creating a conversation that is inaccessible to many of those who do identify with these communities. Photography and memoir are democratic ways of offering these personal and salient stories to those outside of scholarly writing, creating meaningful dialogue external to academia and enabling a wider audience access to this collective experience. Photography enables one to connect and comprehend the difficult and honest emotions dealt with in self-discovery when language and written communication fails. Habib is passionate about sharing her story with others who may have not seen themselves or their stories in writing or art previously. She conveyed her hope that she might be able to provide comfort through her truthfulness about her own experience of being queer and being Muslim. “There’s a lot of joy in being queer,” Habib concluded. Above all else, Habib’s inspirational words brought forth her desire to provide strength and hope to others simply by being honest about herself.