This book by Eddie Ayres is a cracker. A viola player who at one time played with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, Ayres also worked as a radio host on ABC Classic FM, and rode a bicycle from the UK to Hong Kong, carrying a violin. (This journey was the subject of Ayres’ previous book Cadence.) His more recent book, Danger music, tells the story of teaching string players at Afghanistan’s National Music Academy in Kabul. Ayres, who went to Afghanistan as Emma, also decided while there to transition from female to male. This interior journey is counterposed to Ayres’ Kabul experiences as a kind of descant to the main narrative, one that gradually becomes more insistent.
Danger music features a wealth of sharply etched characters and telling incidents. The pupils of the Academy and Ayres’ colleagues and housemates are realised as individuals. His delight in his best pupils’ talent and motivation is mixed with despair at the laziness and venality of others. He is scathing about the impoverished roles that girls are often expected to play in the fundamentalist Islamic culture created by the Taliban. One comes to realise what an incredible achievement it is to found, fund and operate a music academy in a country where being found playing an instrument or listening to instrumental music had been forbidden. His delight in contributing to his pupils’ personal and musical growth is gradually undermined by frustration at the corruption and lack of accountability in which the country still seems mired.
Ayres’ questing life seems to have taken him to many difficult places in the world. None was more challenging than his decision, painfully arrived at, to begin gender transition. I wish that those who blathered about gender fluidity in the recent debate about same sex marriage had been able to read this book. Had they done so, they would know that the gender transition process is not something that is done neither on a whim, nor does it have any political aspect. It involves a change to something basic to our identity. A nagging sense of being in the wrong body, of being the wrong gender, is a feeling that most people will probably never have. (This does not make it a wrong or bad feeling to have.) Ayres had been pushing aside this inner voice for some time, and this took a tremendous toll on him; his struggles with alcohol and suicidal thoughts are described unsparingly. His description of the acceptance he receives from his friends and family is moving. The narrative ends on an optimistic note. Ayres comes across as a generous, observant, and compassionate person. One would need a hard heart not to wish him well in the love he has finally found.
This book spoke to me personally in a couple of ways. First, I studied the cello for 12 years. I gave up after realising I would never achieve the standard that I wanted to, or anything like it. In this process I had many advantages; a wonderful teacher, living in a first world country that is not undergoing a civil war, with the rule of law, dependable power supplies, and where hardly anyone cares if you play music. Ayres’ pupils obviously had a great teacher, but none of the other advantages I enjoyed, and many more obstacles as well. Their achievement seems in this light all the more extraordinary. Second, someone extremely dear to me has undergone gender reassignment. (For various reasons, I can’t identify them.) People who undertake this journey want what everyone wants, to be their best selves. Ayres’ book made me realise emotionally (not just intellectually) what raw courage it takes to reshape oneself in this way.