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Aaron and Ahmed Paperback – 2012
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About the Author
As a novelist, Jay Cantor's novels have all been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. As a screenwriter, he's worked for Walt Disney, Columbia, Universal, and HBO among others, as well as being a story consultant on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He's won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, and was a recipient of a MacArthur Prize "genius" award for his entire body of work.
Top customer reviews
Aaron wasn't a privileged man, but he took advantage of the military to send him to medical school. When the woman he loved was killed in a hijacked plane on 9/11 when it crashed into the second tower, he made a decision fueled by anger and revenge: he chose to become a doctor at Guantanamo Bay. He supervised the torture and made sure the prisoners held without due process weren't tortured to death. While he thought it would be easy to watch these men tortured, he realized even the loss of his love didn't change the man he truly was.
He proposed an alternate means to get information out of the most closed-off and stubborn inmate: Ahmed. Aaron's idea was to feed Ahmed estrogen and treat him kindly in an effort to gain his trust and open him up. Aaron thought he could change Ahmed, but in reality, something different happened. Ahmed changed Aaron. The humanity, or lack thereof, in what was happening in the prison was affecting Aaron in ways that he couldn't contain any longer. Together they would travel a journey that explored the nature of hate and manipulation that leads to one human choosing to do the most inhuman thing they could- choosing to end the lives of innocent people.
This graphic novel was absolutely not what I expected going into it. It was so much more. In fact, now that I have finished it, I am having trouble even remembering my preconceived notions because it was so transformative. There is so much to the ideas of humanity and torture and safety and fear, that unless we expose ourselves to those raw nerves, they will never be soothed. It reminded me of the experience I had in a class recently where my students and I were discussing Civil Rights. They were obviously uncomfortable about the frank and earnest discussion at first, but they persisted and the idea of discussion Civil Rights and humanity became easier with each statement. When we avoid talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, we give them power. By talking about them and thinking about them, we can change ourselves and the world for the better. If those people who started and have continued to fight for Civil Rights in this country succumbed to the discomfort of difficult questions and situations, would we still have separate drinking fountains and bathrooms? Confronting the difficult is how we make progress, and Aaron and Ahmed wanted us to think about torture, fear, understanding our similarities and acknowledging our differences so we can find a way to stop the atrocities that are committed by both sides of this deadly and clandestine war on terror.
I would give this to any older students because the material is very deep, dark, and thought-provoking. It requires a certain maturity and self-awareness in order to make the impression it was written for upon its reader. A more immature reader would fail to connect to the difficult questions being asked. I look forward to sharing this story with appropriate students and am intrigued by the kind of discussions it will no doubt spurn. Now we must continue these tough questions in order to make our present better than our past.
The story starts off strong and then moves into an action-packed and smart meditation on violence, insecurity, religion, human freedom, and love. The art is vivid and disturbing. At the outset,psychologist Aaron becomes a Gitmo interrogator after his wife is killed on 9/11. He selects a prisoner named Ahmed to be the subject of experimental interrogation techniques. In this early part, the story shows the deeply human motivations and inhuman consequences of terrorism and counter-terrorism alike. As we now know well, there are psychopaths on both sides. Once we buy into the story with this sober realism, Cantor and Villarrubia take us on a wild, fantastic ride in which trust is induced through hormone therapy, men become willing to die and kill one another only when their natural goodness succumbs to the disease of fanatical religious exploitation, and in which love is a way to fight back, if not always to prevail.
I can see how some readers might have wanted the book to be a straight-up 24-style 9/11 terror yarn. That's not this book. It demands more from its readers and rewards them with a richly penetrating and relevant narrative. I was completely mesmerized by the fantastic realism. Of this short book's many layered themes, I was struck by the notion of people as "meat computers" that are susceptible to programming, infection, and contagion by powerful cultural and religious memes.
However - this story is like biting into a chocolate Easter bunny you think is going to be full only to discover its hollow inside. The story has plenty of ideas - how powerlessness causes anger which leds to torture and justification; how loss builds up in us; how ideas get inside our heads and how religion is one of the main perpetrators of putting ideas in our heads; and how if you don't know what you already think about God - someone who does will have power over you. Problem is, none of these ideas are really fleshed out or come to any other conclusions that surface reaction. The end feels like a "tack on" (as in "We don't know how to end this situation") and the word "love" is mightily abused with no real direction or meaning.
In short: Great art, a great start, but nothing to bring it together.