A Magician Explores the Souk

A map of the Souk (your results may vary)
A map of the Souk (your results may vary)

Walking towards the Man in the darkness, Lyn said “Can we veer over in this direction?  I want to see that … that … thing.  It looks like an interesting thing.”

They all do.  We veered, and were confronted by a large circular structure with an impossible number of doors in.  How many were there?  12?  20?  30?  We didn’t count, instead focusing on the fact that there was nothing to distinguish one door from another – or what happened when you chose one over another.

There was nothing to do but choose … and hope.  We each picked different doors and walked in.

Inside, the back of each door was beautifully printed with an image of one of the Tarot deck’s major arcana, along with the card’s name and a brief description.  Lyn had walked in through The Devil.  I had walked in through Death.

We shivered, looked at the center of the room – a kind of contemplative shrine – and then examined the beautiful artwork on the doors.  Because having just come in randomly, we now had to deliberately choose which way to exit.

The choice was relatively easy for me.  Lyn, however, was giving it great deliberation.  “I’ll see you outside,” I said at last.

She nodded, I opened my door, and was through.  The desert air was still warm – it was a beautiful night.

Waiting, I looked around at some of the other blinking/shinning/fiery/musical art pieces that people were dancing around, without too much interest. I’ve always had a take it or leave it attitude towards playa art that tries to stun you with visual effects, and a strong preference for playa art that asks you to make relevant choices.  I had just finished the thought when I saw Lyn, having chosen her exit, walking around the circular building looking for me.

We proceeded to the Man.  “I knew you’d choose the Magician,” she said as we walked.  “Guess what I chose?”

I gave it a lot of thought.  “The Hierophant,” I said at last.

“The what?  No,” she said.  “The Sun.  I was giving a lot of thought to The Moon, but ultimately chose the sun.”

Perhaps she knows me better than I know her.

A massive wooden gate at the 6 o’clock road marks the entrance to the Souk.  It rises high, and the Man rises up above it, creating a stunning effect against the night sky.  We shivered as we walked, though there was no breeze (yet), because passing under the wooden beams made it very clear that we were crossing a threshold – that even at Burning Man, this was a different kind of place.  “No Bicycle” signs just past the gate make the point more specific.

The Souk itself is a ring of “shops” that sell nothing, full of people running back and forth on inscrutable errands – each “shop” largely conceived of and staffed by the various regionals.

“Wow,” Lyn said.  “This is really amazing.  I liked the flying saucer last year, but they’ve done such an incredible job.”

We began with the shop directly to our left.  “In adventure stories you’re always supposed to go left,” Lyn said.

The very first shop had a divination wheel – a Burning Man classic that is repeated often through both the 2014 event and the Souk specifically.  This one was a goddam “who’s who” of divination practices.  You began by finding your sign in the Chinese Zodiac, along with whether it was a “ying” or “yang” on the Taoist symbol.  You then matched it up with an element (earth, air, fire, water) and then they set the inner rings of the wheel to reflect this.  You then picked a tarot card, which was used as the flipper on the wheel, and then spun it (after charging up your chi) and the wheel would stop on one of the … you guessed it … major arcana of the tarot deck, which in turn gave you a fortune wrapped in paper.

Does fortune telling really need to be this exhausting?  I’m just asking.  It seems like there could be a simpler system.  But people loved it:  there were plenty of charts to consult, and the use of individual zodiac and element signs gave it a personal touch.

Lyn went first, spun the wheel, and it landed on … The Hierophant.

“I told you,” I said.

“Wow,” she said.  “That’s kind of weird.”

I went next, spun the wheel, and it landed on … The Magician.

“Okay,” Lyn said.  “That’s a lot weird.”

My fortune, which is meant to serve as advice for the next year:  “Burn right, don’t burn out.”


We walked to the next shops, looking at wares from Canada and Minnesota and Washington D.C..  We both had our hair done at the Orange County Regional’s shop, which also had a random playa name generator.  (Note to Burning Man community:  $teven Ra$pa’s new randomly generated playa name is:  “Horny Chicken.”)  What the Souk has available depends on who’s staffing their booth at any one time:  if I go back tomorrow, it will likely be very different.  We missed booths from Scandinavia, China, Argentina, Philadelphia, and many more.

We stopped in the Russian area to examine their lending library (you lend them books) and to each be given a new Russian name.  Lyn’s new name means “Beautiful Spark.”  Mine took a long time.  The woman at the naming table  discussed my experiences in Russia in some depth, only to say that thee wasn’t any inspiration there.  Finally she wrote down “Opokychuk,” and then tried to explain what this means.

“It’s a … it’s a kind of … a magician,” she said.  “One who tells a kind of fairy tale, but there is a joke inside.”

“Oh really,” Lyn said.  “What a surprise.”

I’ve searched for this word online to no avail.  The translation software I’ve tried doesn’t recognize it.  I’ll just have to take the giver’s word for it.

Kudos must go to  the South Bay (California) Regional, whose Souk experience is an absolutely pitch-perfect parody of expensive plug-and-play camps.  Their company “Occidental Oasis” is selling luxury Black Rock City timeshares.   Lyn and I debated, examined their glossy brochures, and finally found the package – complete with one-week ownership, a pool, a gifting concierge, an art car and driver – that was for us.  We sat through the one-on-one sales pitch, debated the merits of having our share during Burning Man or over Christmas, and then were told we’d be given our key if we danced around the Man laughing.

Laughing was easy.  Dancing was hard.  It started out as a waltz and ended up a polka.  Good enough.  I have the key in my hand.  Outside the terms of this marvelous parody, I can’t help but wonder:  what the hell is it a key too?  I hope it’s something terribly weird.

Fireworks launched into the night sky as we walked back out.  They were being send up in a circular pattern so that from a great distance they seemed to crest and explode just over the walls of the Souk, making a celebration of possibility, as fire dancers performed around the man.  All it needed were a few disreputable people hanging around the bazaar on their own time, playing with strangers.  I’ll try to come back tomorrow.

The Souk, so I’m told, is a direction that Burning Man intends to focus on in years to come:  making a deliberate effort to facilitate more small-scale personal interactions, pushing back against the depersonalizing impact that a steady population growth can have.  If what I experienced tonight was any indication, this is all for the good.  It is a beautiful and extraordinary experience, focusing all the ingenuity that so often goes into large scale projects and applying them to human connections.  Yes, more of that, please.

It’s magic.

Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com




About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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