Interview: Saif Ahmed on how his comic YASMEEN explores living with the scars of extremist violence

Saif A. Ahmed
Saif Ahmed, writer of Yasmeen

Saif A. Ahmed is a writer that understands the human mind is more than capable of crafting its own horrors even when provided with as little information as possible. This is evident in his approach to violence and trauma in his comic Yasmeen, a story about an Iraqi family’s experience with violent extremism in Mosul, Iraq, and how its memory follows them when they relocate to the United States.

It’s a brutal comic, but the truly terrifying aspects of it lie in what Ahmed leaves up to the reader’s imagination. In this regard, it’s one of the most educational comics on recent Iraqi history available today and I can’t recommend it enough.

Horror is a powerful educational tool. It goes beyond fact to take a proper stab at understanding an event or an experience. In other words, it’s intimate. Yasmeen deeply subscribes to this idea, but it does so by largely concerning itself with the conflictive act of remembering that characterizes trauma.

Yasmeen centers on the titular character, a 16-year-old girl who is captured by ISIS and is then thrust into slavery at the hands of a man that takes complete control of her life, in all aspects of it. It is revealed that Yasmeen and her family manage to leave Iraq to become refugees in America years later. The comic alternates between the two time periods to capture the horrors of the past and the struggles of the present.

Ahmed’s scripts are unafraid to venture into the violence and abuse Yasmeen lived through in the past, but it rarely indulges in gratuity or graphic imagery. The reader is informed on the things that happen to her and the story moves on.

Yasmeen #1
From Yasmeen #1, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Artist Fabiana Mascolo perfectly captures the implicit nature of the storytelling and knows how much should or shouldn’t be shown for the narrative to work. It’s a strategy often employed in the best horror stories, the kind that prioritize dread and tension over explicit shots of gore and death to keep the audience’s attention.

Whatever human horrors Yasmeen conjures up in its story, however, are met with a refreshingly humble and realistic sense of hope. There’s something to be said about the will to survive as presented in this comic and it’s important readers experience it. It’s where the story gathers its teachings and invites true understanding.

Graphic Policy sat down with writer Saif Ahmed (via email) to discuss the comic and the various elements that went into the creation of such a harrowing but hopeful story about memory and survival.

Ricardo Serrano: Yasmeen is a book with a lot to say and a lot to teach. It’s curious that despite the recent history of Iraq and the Middle East we still seem to know very little about the actual dynamics behind the events that have taken place there. What are you hoping Yasmeen can bring to the conversation in terms of understanding the things that have happened in Mosul through an Iraqi family’s experience of them? 

Yasmeen #3, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Saif A. Ahmed: As a storyteller, my first concern was to tell the best engaging story possible. On top of that I aimed to draw attention to the victims who are still affected by the war. These are people who were living normal peaceful lives, then suddenly they were faced with a pure evil force that subjected them to unimaginable horrors. And while ISIS is almost defeated now and the world has moved on, the survivors still carry emotional and physical scars that will stay with them for rest of their lives. Now I am in no way trying to preach or make the reader feel bad, I myself avoid listening to the depressing news of the world but I do wish to help change how Arabs and immigrants are perceived by simply telling the story of a teenage Iraqi girl and her family from their own prospective. 

Serrano: One of the things I found interesting about the book as that it doesn’t hold the reader’s hand throughout the story. Not everything is explained in a clear cut manner, as is the case with the conflict’s factions and the ideas they uphold. Yet, it still gets its point across. What was the thought process behind this approach? 

Ahmed: Well, the first rule of storytelling is “show don’t tell!” I didn’t want to feed the readers a ton of information (this is the best way to lose them). I rather show glimpses of the long and deadly conflict through the characters’ interactions as if the readers are witnessing engaging high-stakes debates. The fake checkpoint (that’s what we call the infamous terrorist checkpoints in Iraq) sequence for instance was an important scene for me because I once was stopped by a terrorist group that were looking for people from my sect of Islam. I was lucky that I didn’t get caught but if I had, I wish to think that I would’ve been brave enough to say to them what Yasmeen‘s uncle says in the sequence. 

Serrano: Despite the horrors Yasmeen guides readers through, actual instances of violence are treated with restraint and inventiveness. It leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. What led to the decision to keep things implicit and not graphic? 

Ahmed: I wasn’t interested in the violence itself but rather its influence on the victims. The whole point of the story is that violent acts stay with us long after they take place. Violence is not glamorous in real life. It’s horrifying. The best artists in the world won’t be able to convey that as good as the human imagination. 

Serrano: I’m curious as to the books, movies, experiences, games, etc. that inspired you in the process of scripting Yasmeen. Was there anything you looked that you definitely wanted to be present in the story? Any other things you were consciously aware of that you didn’t want in the story?

Yasmeen #2
Yasmeen #2, by Saif Ahmed and Fabiana Mascolo

Ahmed: I based the story off my life in Iraq/US and the horrible real-life events that the people in Mosul lived through. But as a writer I learned a lot of storytelling techniques like the use of subtext and themes from great TV shows like Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and Mad Men. As for the second part of your question, I definitely didn’t want my story to be told through the eyes of the usual western outsider protagonist. A lot of them like to turn Arab characters into clichés. I aimed to demonstrate that, even though we might have different traditions, most of us wish to live peacefully just like any other person in the world. 

Serrano: While the book deals with trauma head-on and without restraint, to its success, there’s something interesting in how the story alternates between past (Mosul, Iraq) and present (America). Why was it important to show Yasmeen’s experience and interactions in America via these time jumps? 

Ahmed: That’s how Yasmeen is living. She’s in two places at the same time. Her body is in the US but her mind is still living in the past. Telling the story within two time periods progressing alongside each other combined with Fabiana’s amazing art put the reader right in Yasmeen‘s mind without the need of thought bubbles or unnecessary exposition.

Serrano: What’s coming up after Yasmeen? You looking to expand on the story or are you moving on to different projects? 

Ahmed: It took me more than two years to make Yasmeen. I had the idea for it four years ago. These six issues will come to a satisfying end for Yasmeen‘s arc. And while I have few ideas to take the characters into a new arc, I will probably let it marinate for now and move on to one of the many other ideas that I have. I actually just shared my “vault of ideas” with Fabiana the other day in the hopes that we can work together again.