Midburn, in its very essence, is spiritual. Before you start thinking that I've gone over to the dark side (or the light side) let me hasten to add that nobody could ever accuse me of being a particularly religious or observant person. But put aside the endless trance music (PLEASE!!!); set aside for the moment, the fun and exuberance and all-night partying; in embracing the ethos of Burning Man, the 10 Principles and the often surreal atmosphere, there is a certain "spirituality" that cannot be denied.
Why else would people weep with sheer emotion as the effigies and the Man were engulfed in flames? Why else would they feel the awe and wonder of the vast expanse of the desert? Why else would they rejoice in spending five days in primitive, bare bones, sand-blasted, and yes, often downright unpleasant conditions? How else can you account for the atmosphere of joy, enthusiasm, helpfulness, cooperation, sharing, caring and selfless giving that characterized the entire experience?
And how else can you explain an Israeli on-duty policeman hanging his contribution on the gifting tree?!!
|The Effigy before the burn|
Even the image of Midburn "officials" walking somberly in the darkness towards the effigy to commence the burning ceremony was ancient and primal, like priests gathering around the altar, with the congregation thronged in eager anticipation of the ultimate climax.
The overall feeling at Midburn is one of total freedom: freedom from the norms of a judgmental and demanding society; freedom from conforming; freedom of expression, of emotion, of dress (or undress as the mood takes you, and certainly took a number of Burners); freedom of movement, of creativity. Freedom to just be who you are and what you want to be on your own terms...all completely benign; without competition, without criticism, without aggression and without any expectations.
We arrived at the incredibly well-organized tent city that sprung up in the desert just off Route 40, a few kilometers beyond Kibbutz Sde Boker in the south of Israel, at around lunch-time on Tuesday. Even before we subjected our overloaded Subaru to the rutted dirt track that pretended to be a road, we felt a "frisson" of excitement at seeing the wooden effigies, Temple and "Man" on the slight rise just beyond the camp.
At the entrance we were greeted by a phalanx of exotically dressed "greeters" (our younger daughter Liz - Aliza - among them); garbed, so it seemed, for an other-worldly Purim party; fairies, boys and girls in multi-colored costumes of somewhat free design, guys on stilts wearing top hats, strangely clad creatures crawling out of their lairs, all manner of desert denizens just waiting to receive us "Virgin Burners" and initiate us into this alternative existence for the next five days. We entered a drive-through tent, where we were shown a short animated video about what was expected of us at Midburn and how to behave. After this welcome, each car was invited by the greeters to stop at a large gong, to be struck with a huge hammer, announcing their arrival.
This process eventually slowed down the entrance of vehicles to a crawl and by midnight, it was taking more than two hours to get from the tar road to the gate - about 1 km. Nothing remotely like in Nevada, where according to Lizi - who has been to two Burning Man (Mans, Men?) - it takes more than 12 hours to travel from Reno to the Playa at Black Rock - normally a two hour drive! But she says, it's all part of the experience for the 65,000 who attend. And the Midburn "p'kak" (traffic jam) didn't seem to dull anybody's enthusiasm here either.
At our prearranged site Marlyn somewhat naively set out her beautiful scrap-denim door mat in front of our tent. Needless to say, its gorgeous design rapidly became invisible, consumed by the desert sand.
|There is a denim door mat under there somewhere....|
Then we explored the "city" on the "Playa" - the term used for the expanse of Negev on which Midburn was set up.
There is no money allowed at Midburn - the only thing you could buy for your coin was ice, as a public safety measure. Everything else was given or taken - without any concept or prospect of an "exchange". So to describe Midburn's economy as "bartering" is inaccurate. It's "gifting". Plain and simple.
The Playa was home to various individual camps, in which the members undertook to provide "things" - services, food, drink, music, yoga, counselling, activities for children ...even showers; each participant undertaking certain responsibilities to ensure its smooth running.
There's the International House of Pancakes camp, cooking up pancakes day and night to feed the masses; over there, the "Shithole" camp, dispensing Bloody "F...ing" Mary's to anybody brave enough to try them - without a doubt four parts Vodka, four parts Tabasco, 1-part tomato juice! Here's the Puppet camp, where anybody can use the gorgeous puppets provided to put on a show (as Camilla and I did for Omri); a Jungle camp, a family camp and a dozen or so others - and of course that Trance Music camp (right next to ours which accounted for my three restless nights!) Art installations, dance, amazingly supple pole dancers, sculptures, music, all-night revelers, the Dome of Rock - with a drum set perched high on top of a geodesic dome - so many events and experiences.
And of course the amazing structures, art installations and effigies centered around the overall "Genesis" theme, each and every one an outpouring of dynamic creativity, talent and sheer hard work.
To fully participate in this spirit of "giving", Marlyn and I - probably among the more senior Burners around - decided to give of our personal skills. Marlyn held a lovely scrap-denim quilting workshop with a wonderful group of international students from the Ben Gurion University Sde Boker campus. I gave a story-telling hour, reading from the works of my late friend Pnina Isseroff, and South African author Herman Charles Bosman.
|"Grandpa" 8-meters of amazing carpentry|
Facilities were...errr...basic: without dwelling on it, the most popular vehicle crawling around the camp in the early morning, stopping at each line of Porta-potties, was the "Negev Naki" ("Clean Negev") waste disposal truck...'nuff said.
The Shower camp provided welcome wetness in the desert heat - as long as you were prepared to stand pretty much in the open (preferably without your clothes) to get sprayed with water and soap. It was exhilarating ...particularly after the
Ever tried flying a kite in a sandstorm? Not recommended...especially when the string on Omri's kite broke twice (but that's another story!)
All 3,000 burners adhered to and were vigilant about "Leaving no Trace". There was nary a scrap of paper, plastic or any trash whatsoever, anywhere. Any "moop" (matter out of place) which might have been blown about by the wind, was quickly scooped up and sealed in a personal garbage bag to be dumped later.
At times, I felt as if we had been transported into a post-Apocalyptic movie. Many of the participants were dressed in Mad Max-style garb, aviator goggles, leather flying helmets, cut-off military-style shorts and desert boots. I could imagine the organizers calling everybody together to make an announcement that the rest of the world had been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust and that we 3,000 Midburners were the last survivors...and this is where we would be living for the rest of our lives, relying only on the 10 Principles as our guiding ideology.
|Wind-powered desert tricycle - shades of Mad Max|
If that was their intention, then they certainly succeeded at Midburn. The level of creativity, in the designing and building, the creating of the effigies, the Man, Grandpa, the Temple and numerous other installations was incredible. The level of cooperation and sharing between the various camps was inspiring. And the sheer hard work and dedication put in by the Midburn team in a year of planning and then setting up the Playa in searing desert heat, is beyond praiseworthy.
In closing, I wish to repeat that while I am neither particularly religious nor observant, sometimes, something weird and wonderful, and often inexplicable happens - especially in the desert.
It took place over Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah in the wilderness. The following quote (admittedly paraphrased to suit my purpose - I hope the good Rav will forgive me) creates an intriguing link between Midburn and Shavuot.
"The desert. A place of emptiness, of desolation...(as the Talmud says,)
to grasp Torah one must make himself owner-less like the desert. One must nullify himself, abandon himself as it were, and simply allow whatever happens to happen — just let the Divine light flow in. One must put aside critical thinking..."
Rav Hanan Schlesinger, Texas Jewish Post
I believe this puts Midburn and the Burning Man experience into apt perspective.
(My thanks to Shoshana Michael-Zucker, Hod ve'Hadar Masoriti Congregation in Kfar Saba, for inspiring me with these thoughts.)
Here are some more pictures. To see other amazing photographs go to Eyal Levkovitch's Facebook page
|Camilla's pic of Omri recreating the line of cars waiting to get into Midburn|
(without any prompting from anyone)
|Patchwork shade cloth at the adjacent camp site|