In 2008, Laurent Zylberman and Éric Meyer have been the only free-lance press people allowed into Tibet to report on the autonomous region since the March 2008 riots. In their book “Tibet, Last Scream!” resulting from that trip, they both endeavored to subtly depict two confronting, if not clashing cultures. Narrated day by day, Laurent’s black-and-white photographs and Eric’s diary immerse the reader into a journey through the roof top of the world and open up a window onto modern Tibet: a window not on what it used to be, but on what it is or could become.
One of the stories from their trip, included in the book…
On the 24th of September 2008, on the side of the main road from Lhasa to the lowlands, we were visiting a farm. Dianba, his wife and two relatives were busy threshing the grain.
The work was hard, the farm was busy, the atmosphere pleasant and full of wit. The farmer had four “mu” (2500m²) of wheat, soja and barley, 5 pigs, 2 cows, 20 yaks, the butter of which they sold weekly to the market. More than anything else, they also had their house, newly built at a cost of 50000 Yuan(7000 Dollar), half of the money being let by the province, via the local credit cooperative. Quite a nice, sturdy two-story mansion of heavy stone and carved wood, built according to local precepts. Dianba was paying back about 200$ per month, which in is words, was “no problem”. 50 Meter away, his neighbor was boasting on top of his puffing and panting tractor, which had helped cut and bring in his fall crop. Dianba was planning to buy his own the year after. For Dianba and his people, life was not too bad.
Nonetheless, Sanmu, our young guide was nervous, watching us all the time and never leaving us out of sight. Even in the face of this true success story for the regime – a story which could not have been cheated, as we had chosen the spot on a sudden inspiration (“taxi – stop here pls”).
During the whole trip,Sanmu’s nervousness would only grow more and more intense, especially as we were visiting monasteries like Ganden, Tashilumpo or the Jokhang: there, she went as far as prohibiting me from asking a question to an old monk, or denying translation. She gave us hell, and we reciprocated, as we split into four directions in order to see things and people on our own, with a minimum of privacy – she could not be with all of us at the same time… On the last days, nervously exhausted, close to tears, she would confess that she had been under strict orders to act so rudely, and would have been fired, had she relented. After the mission, she asked to be transferred to another department or her “waiban” (Bureau for Foreign Affairs) – she felt, and was felt definitely too sweet for the job.
As a matter of fact, the entire provincial government was nervous. It was afraid of the tension that could flare and burst at any moment. I have never seen such heavy armored and busily patrolled cities like Lhasa or Shigatze. Though the regime has spent, and still spends billions of dollars per year on the plateau’s modernization. Though the regime has very convincing deeds to show, good roads, schools, dispensaries, all of these infrastructures and social services at a preliminary stage, but they did not exist at all 50 years earlier at the time before China. The regime has even done better than that: it has trained and hired cohorts of Tibetan nurses, doctors, teachers, juges, experts and industrialists, all of them with salaries and paid holidays, social welfare and pensions. People who accept, and perhaps secretly welcome the system as possibly the best deal the region could hope for. Those people, we met them mostly at night, strolling in the city, without any guide to tell us who to talk to and about what.
Some of them, we met through contacts pre-arranged from Beijing. In my raw estimate, “rule of thumb”, up to 30% of the Tibetans there may be accepting or supporting the socialist regime. At the same time, they keep staying faithful “gelubka”, yellow hat-Buddhists, dreaming of seeing the Dalai Lama back here to ensure their spiritual future and the reemerging of their culture. Up to 80% of them, upon their death, chose the “aerial burial” – letting their bodies being devoured by gigantic vultures at the tops of hills around Lhasa. And the local law protects this tradition, warning outsiders by posts and signals in Tibetan, Mandarine and English to stay away.
All of this and lots more, contributed to the decision to write the book, in order to sort out all these conflicting elements. This region was lacking freedom for sure, and therefore, was not in a position to build its own free image, consciousness. Laurent, with his powerfulblack & white pictures, was very close to me on the interpretation, also engrossed with the altitude drunkenness and an instinctive refusal of those stern, unforgiving ideologies. Going for the people and seeking to restore the natural link of mankind. Tibet belongs to the world, to itself, to us, and we, i.e., both Tibet and the world, need one another. Seeing Han Chinese and Tibetan youngsters dancing together in the night club in both Lhasa and Damxiong near the Namso lake, we both had the intuition of a future culture, half spiritual (buddhist), half materialist (Han Chinese) that could emerge, where reconciled people were in dialogue. What a bet, for Tibet, and for the future !
Later, back to the lowland, after having spent a year writing down our trip, I found out that the conflict perceived up in the mountains, was spread everywhere and predominant around the rest of the world.