Written by Tenzin Dickyi
Machik Program Intern & Rising Senior at Colgate University
This past weekend I attended my first Machik Khabda, both as a Program Intern with Machik and as a curious mind. The idea of Khabda is something that I am familiar with in an academic context. Reading, viewing, or experiencing a work of art, something someone has created and then going on to discuss it with peers is usually something that I look forward to, but also creates a lot of anxiety for me. I’m not the biggest fan of speaking in big groups, but this experience was different. I was talking about a film about Tibetans in Tibet, made by a Tibetan, talking with people who are Tibetan or who care about Tibet. Although nervous to speak up in this group, I had many thoughts and questions stirring in my mind as I watched The Valley of the Heroes by Khashem Gyal.
I had high expectations for this film because of what I heard from people about Khashem and his work. While these expectations were fulfilled, I thought the film would speak more to Islam in Tibet. Just the sheer fact that Kashem Gyal was able to create a film about both language and religion is incredible. Both are sensitive subjects, but Kashem still went on to document them. The idea of language loss is something that I think about often because I do not know how to read or write in Tibetan either. It was inspiring to see the community in the film step up to address a problem they see in their society. When I was young I did not care to learn how to read or write in Tibetan because of the pressure I felt to speak English and do well in school. As I got older and began to reconnect more with my Tibetan-ness, I started to blame my lack of knowledge on my surroundings and not needing to learn. However, this film showed how important the preservation of language, and in turn culture, is for Tibet and Tibetans.
I thought it was incredible how Kashem used different colors for subtitles to distinguish the Chinese from Tibetan languages. While I could not understand most of the Tibetan in the first place, it was nice to know when Tibetan was being spoken and when Chinese was being spoken. The different colored subtitled also showed how the two languages, in certain parts of Tibet, are interchangeable in conversation due to the bilingualism of the people. It depicted how often, in this area, Chinese is used in Tibetan households and exactly how prominent the language loss is. There were some people born just a few decades apart and their first language was completely different. As someone at the Khabda highlighted, it was crazy to see how fast the local language switched from Tibetan to Chinese.
In addition, seeing Tibetan Muslims was really interesting to me. A year ago, I had no idea that Tibetan Muslims existed, let alone the fact there are mosques in Tibet. Seeing Tibetans who practice a religion other than Buddhism was eye-opening to the fact that not all of Tibet is Buddhist, as people often believe. My family has painted a picture of Tibet that depicts it as mountainous and green with yaks roaming around. However, Tibet has many different people living there. David G. Atwill speaks to the exclusion of Muslims in Tibet’s narrative in his book Islamic Shangri-La. Atwill highlights how, after a few generations of Muslims presence in Tibet, Tibetans in Tibet viewed them as Tibetan. However, visitors to Tibet consistently labelled them as non-Tibetan. Khashem’s film opened up conversation about deconstructing an homogenized idea of Tibetans and what what Tibetans do in Tibet.