Magic and madness: Midburn 2015

"Yes, it may sound like a fantasy, but I can assure you it is real. I know because I was there and saw it myself."

Midburn festival (photo credit: GALI TIBBON / AFP)
Midburn festival
(photo credit: GALI TIBBON / AFP)
It may sound like a tall tale, an embellished bedtime story spun by the most fantastical of raconteurs, or one of Scheherazade’s legends, but it’s true: If you happen upon a special spot in the Negev, you will discover a magical, nameless hidden city, known only as the Playa.
The Playa glows in fantastical colors in the middle of the night, tempting revelers to drink and dance under the stars until the sun comes up, encouraging them to abandon their inhibitions and let their truest selves shine through.
Wild, costumed multitudes of every variety glow like neon stars on the sandy dunes. It is a place where no money changes hands, and people survive through their own means and the gifts of others.
The Playa appears just once a year, at a time known as Midburn, and then disappears without a trace.
Yes, it may sound like a fantasy, but I can assure you it is real. I know because I was there and saw it myself. This year, however, something nearly prevented the Playa from coming into existence at all.
IN 2011, a group of free spirits got together and decided to create a regional version of Burning Man, the Nevada- based desert festival, in Israel. They dubbed the local version “Midburn,” a play on midbar, the Hebrew word for desert, and Middle East, and adopted the principles of Burning Man festivals around the world.
The original Burning Man, which has a reputation as a haven for hippies, sprang from a curious incident in 1986, in which two San Francisco men named Jerry and Larry (last names James and Harvey, respectively) built a makeshift wooden statue and set it aflame. The effigy drew a crowd, and the two made it an annual tradition, each year upping the size of the figure and drawing larger crowds. The event eventually drew the interest of the Cacophony Society, an underground “network of eccentrics” who reveled in pranks and spontaneous art.
Police intervened against the burning in 1989, so the following year the group decided to move it to the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, a fateful step that added elements of survival and self-reliance to the event. As it grew from year to year, from a few hundred to several thousand, the event integrated new elements that became core principles: radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, radical inclusion, civic responsibility and leaving no trace, among others. People came together to form theme camps, which were mapped out around the burning man in a circular format that followed a clockface layout called the Playa, which is Spanish for beach. The inner circle surrounding the figure was dubbed the Esplanade, or promenade.
The event became a phenomenal success, and as the wooden man grew from a height of 2.4 meters in 1986 to a record of 32 meters in 2014, the crowd swelled to nearly 70,000. Burners started creating local versions of the event, and regional Burning Man festivals popped up around the US and all over the world, in countries including South Africa, New Zealand and Spain.
THE LONG, dusty path between the paved highway near Sde Boker and the entrance to Midburn is treacherous. Sand begins to cake on the cars amassed in a single snaking line. Loose particles spew from under car wheels into a massive, opaque cloud.
During the 20-minute increments that separate one-minute advances in the line, people get out of their cars, turn up their radios and start to mingle with the other burners waiting in line, many of whom already have donned wings, lights or hats they brought to express themselves with radical freedom.
A sign appears: “If I could,” it says in Hebrew, English and Arabic. It is followed by another: “Maybe I would stop.” And another: “For a minute on the sidelines.”
“To ask myself, I would.”
“All those questions of mine.”
“That have ever come up.”
“And I was scared to ask,” the signs say, waxing philosophical.
“How am I now?” they wonder.
“Where am I?” “What’s with all this dust?” “Is it edible?” Like much of Midburn, the signs hint at a New Age hippie philosophy that also knows how to poke fun at itself. (And as many burners discover: Yes, the ubiquitous dust is edible. It has to be, because it gets into everything, including your food.) The drive from Tel Aviv to Sde Boker takes around two hours. The dusty path from the road to the Playa takes six, partly because delays in getting the final permits approved prevent the gates from opening until five hours later than expected, and partly because processing thousands of cars on an individual basis just takes a long time.
The sun sets. The air cools. The car turns a corner, and suddenly a tiny galaxy of glowing lights nestled in the barren nothingness unveils itself in the distance. Where did it come from? And what is with all the dust? When at last you arrive at the entrance, your ticket is checked, you are given a map of the Playa and a greeter asks you to get out of your car. He gives you a hug, then looks you in the eye. “Welcome home,” he says.
IN ISRAEL, the burner community was born as so many modern ones are: on Facebook. Some Burning Man returnees formed a group on the social network called Burning Man Israel VIP (which, of course, stands for Very Inclusive People), for like-minded burners to decompress, reminisce and hang out. They started meeting at Pushpin, a bar in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, and like their San Francisco counterparts so many years earlier, eventually ended up burning a man on a beach. That 2011 event, dubbed Mama Burn, drew 600 people, and led to Octoburn in 2012, where over 1,400 people gathered and set up makeshift camps for Succot.
Interest in the community grew rapidly and the burners felt the time had come to professionalize, so in 2013, the group formed a nonprofit, established four regional contacts with Burning Man and started laying the ground for the first Midburn.
“In Israel there is a tendency to adopt things quickly, and because it’s a small country where word spreads like a brushfire, then everyone immediately wants in. But I don’t think that there’s something specific to Israel; I think the principles speak to everyone,” explains Roni Kantor, a Midburn organizer. “I think that you can’t ascribe the wisdom behind Burning Man to a nation. It’s something every person can connect to.”
Over the next year, they built up the community, sold tickets, got permits and in June 2014, 3,000 people came together for the first Midburn in the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council area. The event was a smashing success.
Tammy Salomon, a native Australian who had no experience with Burning Man or camping festivals, joined the event at the behest of a friend. “Midburn last year totally changed my life, and the lives of so many people. When we spoke to people in the months afterward, everyone had different stories. They found themselves with a new look at life, a place where they could belong and be the person they wanted to be without the constraints of society.”
Salomon describes two friends who were photographed in white costumes, complete with wigs and blue accessories, kissing. When one was asked what she was dressed up as, she replied she wasn’t dressed up as anything.
“I think it allows everybody to be their best self, and not in a sense of how clever they are or how smart they are, but it lets them get to as much of themselves as they can,” says Salomon. “It just gives everyone the platform to be who they are, what they are, in a way they can’t in everyday life because of societal constraints.”
“I think every country needs their own version of Burning Man,” Salomon adds. “Everybody needs a place they can call home, and that’s what that is.”
With the resounding success of their first Midburn under their belts, the community prepared to expand for its second outing, and expected that things would go just as smoothly the second time around. It didn’t turn out quite that way.
IN ITS second year, the number of Midburn participants was expected to double, making it the largest regional burn after South Africa’s. Tickets sold quickly, and as in the previous year, many of the participants began organizing into theme camps.
Unlike music or art festivals where campers can simply set up and buy food and water, burner events emphasize self-reliance and ban commerce.
Theme camps let participants organize kitchens, food, water and, perhaps most importantly, what it is that they plan to gift to the community. Those community camps are the heart of the event; almost nothing else is provided by way of entertainment or activities.
One central group called Mapatz covers the infrastructure, such as electricity and water supply for camps, as well as the ever-important statue of the man to be burned. For months, the burners met, swapping ideas and arranging logistical details, planning everything from menus to decorations to lighting. Eager burners planned elaborate costumes and raves, artists designed sculptures, and party- goers stocked up on battery-powered LED accessories to light up the night.
On Sunday, May 10, 10 days before Midburn was set to open the gates to its new site near Sde Boker, the first volunteers from Mapatz started building, mapping out the Playa, putting up the street signs and setting up the tents. The volunteers ranged from young to old, and were a mix of professionals, the employed and unemployed – and they received no compensation. Throughout the week, designated burners from the theme camps trickled in to undertake the massive task of building a sustainable city in the desert that would function for five days before being taken down without a trace.
But there was a problem: Though they had begun the permit process four months earlier, the police had a list of demands for maintaining public safety that the community found unacceptable. The organizers maintained they had filed a document expressing concerns over the police’s licensing conditions, but were met with silence.
“The more we insisted on clear explanations of said requirements, the more we were faced with new, stricter requirements and no explanation whatsoever. From then on, all of our requests for further meetings were met with a negative reply,” the group wrote in a post to participants.
Though the police maintain that no new conditions were added, organizers were flummoxed to hear that their second outing was not up to snuff. The fence they had built around the perimeter? Too short. Allowing glass bottles (such as those containing alcohol)? Unacceptable. The possibility of public nudity? Outrageous. Moreover, the police were insisting on thorough security checks of every car that came in, which would make the notoriously long entrance line even worse, and on installing closed-circuit cameras in places that included tents, which organizers termed “an unheard-of intrusion to privacy.”
Constant police monitoring, though good for spotting illegal drug use, would break the back of an event determined to push people to be their freest selves. Israeli media said the police were trying to turn it into reality-show Big Brother. With one week left to the event, hundreds of volunteers and artists on-site to build, and an expected crowd of 6,500 people, including 500 tourists from 48 countries, geared up for Midburn, the police announced they would not be approving permits for the event.
“WE COULDN’T have imagined we would ever find ourselves in such a situation,” organizers told their fellow burners. The team quickly gathered its lawyers to fight the decision, but an even more urgent obstacle had arisen. A court had issued a cease-and-desist order, meaning the hundreds of volunteers camping in a half-built tent city in the desert had to stop building.
On Facebook, tourists planning trips to Israel responded with panic. “Should we – participants – still come or not?” one commenter asked. Above all, the organizers were bewildered by what they saw as obstinate, perhaps even intentional, intervention by the police.
“We finished last year with great harmony with the police, and no police incidents, so we expected this year to be easier,” notes Kantor. “But it was much more difficult.”
Many of the organizers wondered if there was some intention to prevent the burn from going forward. “It seemed like they really did not want this event to happen,” recounts Dan Peguine, head of communications for Midburn, echoing a common sentiment at the time.
But the police said they were just doing their jobs, and dismissed the idea they had something against Midburn. They facilitated lots of festivals in the area, a spokesman pointed out. “The police are simply worried about the safety of the public. We want festivals in the Negev!” On the afternoon of Sunday, May 17, with the weekend lost and three days to go until the festival, a Beersheba judge sided with the organizers and lifted the cease-and-desist order. While the police and the organizers returned to negotiations over permit approvals, volunteers raced against the clock to make up for the lost days. Even if the permit was approved, it would not be much of an event if nothing was built.
“Everyone in the production team went into ‘save-the-event’ mode,” recalls Peguine. People missed work, extra volunteers joined the group and building went into a frenzy. Upon returning to negotiations, however, the community was pleasantly surprised to find an open ear in Southern District Police Commander Yoram Halevy.
“Something changed in the police’s approach to our event,” says Peguine. “The police took a great stride in terms of who the community is and its legitimacy, and our ability to organize and plan events that are participant- based.”
Late Monday night, the sides reached a verbal compromise: A handful of cameras in public spaces, under Midburn’s control; no nudity in public areas (allowed in the camps); glass bottles permitted, except for beer; use of the current fence; and no intrusive car inspections.
“We went from a condition where the situation was almost lost to one where it went forward,” Kantor affirms. The police, too, emphasized the light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s important to look at the other side, that it went ahead as planned,” a spokeswoman stated. “The police did everything they could to help the festival take place.”
BY DAY, the Playa is a swarm of activity. Theme camps with names such as Everland and Temp Camp offer activities and seminars ranging from yoga to costume- making, discussions on gender to creative writing. One camp, Shtifa’le, throws a big, clothing-optional public shower to help participants wash off the dust and cool down under the blistering sun. Another, Red Nose, lets would-be and accomplished acrobats alike twirl on the dangling silks, hula-hoop and swing.
Two men dressed as lifeguards sit on the waterless Playa, shouting at passersby through megaphones. “You, you over there, stop walking in a group, it’s dangerous. You hear me? Walking in a group is forbidden,” they bellow in a send-up of Israel’s bossy beach lifeguards. A postal system, Midburn Mail, lets you send postcards to your friends in other camps, but don’t be surprised if they throw one back in your face for being too boring, or fill out a form “fining” you for something or another.
A man with donkey ears saunters past, juggling. Another in a flowing dress heads toward the freeze-dried ice-cream stand. A woman in gold distributes lemonade. Children run through a family-friendly camp filled with giant Alice in Wonderland-style mushrooms, or visit Sheduza, a creature that is half-ghost/half-jellyfish.
Music is all around.
When the sun sets, the Playa lights up and the parties get going. An enormous white whale houses a rave, complete with a live house music band and psychedelic wall projections that can be seen from outside. In Afterlife, people are sorted to Heaven, a dance space with a massage table, and Hell, an S&M torture chamber complete with whips for spanking. Singers make their way to the karaoke party. Dancers enter a giant ring of electrified cubes that blaze up in mesmerizing patterns.
When the sun rises over the hills, a cellist and guitarist welcome it with a haunting melody, their gift to Midburn.
To the left of the Playa stands the gigantic statue of Adam and Eve, to be burned in effigy as the event’s end draws near. In the middle of it all, atop a hill, sits the temple, a spiritual respite from the commotion of the Playa. It is illuminated only by a campfire in the middle, casting dancing shadows behind the aromatic palm wood sticks.
Like the Playa and everything in it, the temple lacks permanence. The beautiful structure, shaped like a Star of David with spiral arms, is burned on the last night. The ritual is reminiscent of Tibetan monks who work for days on carefully crafting mandalas out of colorful sand, only to dump the intricate art into the river. It is a reminder that life, and beauty, and all things, are temporary – a reminder to bask in the immediacy of the moment, a reminder to transcend.