Reviews

The Salt Men of Tibet

Norbert Ruebsaat

After the salt men pass a certain rock they all speak the salt language. Women are not allowed to hear this language, nor are they allowed to look in the direction of the lake where the salt language is spoken. Men who don't speak it are less respected by their fellows, and men who have contact with women, use profanities or pass wind while at or near the salt lake displease its female spirit and cause her to withhold the salt. Young men who have not been at the lake before must learn the work methods and the salt language from the experienced men. The young men must refrain from contact with women, from uttering profanities, and from behaving disrespectfully while en route to the lake and at the lake. The journey to the lake takes one month. Sometimes it takes nine or eight days more than a month, and sometimes seven days less. One of the men, called the Animal Man, takes care of the yaks and the ponies; another organizes and cooks the food and is called the Salt Mother and another man plans the route and is called the Salt Father. Occasionally one of the yaks gets sick; then a man must be found who knows about yak diseases and who will tell the others what to do. The salt men sing while they push the salt into cone-shaped piles with large hoes, and this singing appeases and pampers the salt lake spirit, who in some years gives much salt and in other years gives little. One man sings, "Where is the salt?" and answers, "On my shovel. Where is my shovel? In front of the handle. Where is the handle? In my hand." Back in the village a woman sings continually while the men are away; her song tells the story of the salt men's journey. Another woman tells the filmmakers that it has long been the custom for women not to turn in the direction of the lake, or attempt to hear or speak the salt language, and she doesn't know where this custom originated. After saying this she laughs. The villages sell their salt for barley and in some years there is much barley and in others there is little, and then the villagers have to sell their yaks to survive. This means there are fewer yaks to carry the salt the next year. Recently, trucks have come to gather the salt from the lake, and the salt men, who shovel the salt into sacks, pack it tight, sew up the sack-tops and tether the sacks to the yaks' backs, watch the trucks and listen to the noise of their engines. One of the salt men turns to the camera and explains that the salt language is secret and can be "spoken about" anywhere, but only "spoken" near and at the lake. When the caravan reaches the rock we hear the men speaking the salt language, and the subtitles are written in Tibetan. The film is called The Salt Men of Tibet, and it was made by the Swiss filmmaker Ulrike Koch in 1997.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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