Israel's Version of Burning Man Won't Save the Country - but It Can Change Its People

Will this utopic lasting impact on the people who attend - or will they just return to their ordinary lives of oppression?

Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
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People stretch during the Midburn festival at southern Israel May 23, 2015.
People stretch during the Midburn festival at southern Israel May 23, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

The Midburn, the Israeli version of the American Burning Man festival, is picking up speed as one of the largest and most successful independent events in Israel. About 6,000 people attended this year’s festival making it the third-largest Burning Man event in the world. It was only the second time Midburn’s been held, with this year’s event taking place in the Negev desert near Sde Boker. Thousands of people set up a real city that operates according to the Ten Commandments of the Burning Man, and include lots of gift giving, radical self expression and ecological awareness.

The opening of the gates was delayed for hours due to difficulties with the police, who were concerned about public nudity. Last Tuesday there were kilometers-long lines of cars on the desert road leading from the main highway, with people waited for an average of about six hours in their cars, in 40-degree centigrade heat.

But the long lines only demonstrated the beauty of the Midburn: In the entire traffic jam nobody tried to overtake another car, and nobody honked. People sat on their cars and played instruments, others played chess or blew bubbles to entertain those stuck in the traffic jam.

Photo by Ilan Assayag

Most of the camps were theme camps: The Happy Unbirthday camp, for example, gave gifts and alcohol to people who didn’t have a birthday, the Post Trauma postal camp created a postal network among the camps by using ziplines and messengers wearing antlers. It also created Burning Man stamps, and tried to recreate an impossible bureaucracy. Upon your arrival an angry clerk shouted at you “All the computers are down” and threw a model of a computer onto the floor.

The Knafeh and Wings camp served knafeh (a Middle Eastern cheese pastry) at sunset. There was a camp of the deaf, which among other things started a contest of curses in sign language. But the real beauty of the festival was in the individual initiatives: Children who simply decided to spray water on you in the hot desert; someone who followed people with a loudspeaker and made a private party for them. There’s no limit to generosity and creativity.

It’s not always easy to endure the conditions that characterize the five-day festival — chemical toilets, no available showers. It took me a while to discover the Shtifeleh, one of the more popular camps. You bring a two-liter bottle. If you arrive alone, you’re given a partner so that you can wash one another. I was paired with a young girl with braces on her teeth. You get up on a platform, one of 10, and then with a special device you spray one another for a few pleasant moments.

Photo by Ilan Assayag

What I am really wondering is what impact these few days of utopian and carefree living have on the Israelis who attend. Once it’s over, will the wonderful people I met be able to return to their oppressive lives, to be lawyers who evict someone from their home, or participate in the next military operation? How can something as free and wild as the Midburn flourish in a country that is responsible for so many injustices? Maybe it’s like a huge bachelorette party, a moment of release before returning to a routine life.

Many people told me that the Midburn had changed them. But someone I met, who is about to start a new and difficult job that she doesn’t really want, told me that she had run into someone from her future workplace who explained to her: “Welcome to life. We’re people who work hard in profitable jobs that we hate and attend such events once in a while in order to spend the money.”

But even if the Midburn won’t save Israel from itself, during the event it does something to a person, more than most of the cultural and community events that I’m familiar with. It brings great happiness to thousands of people for a few days, and that’s something whose value should not be underestimated.

Photo by Ilan Assayag

Photo by Ilan Assayag

Photo by Ilan Assayag

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