Originally published on October 29, 2022 | Reposted with permission from the author
Roxane Jessi is an intrepid world traveler who spent the last few years participating in Burning Man Regional Events around the globe, from Blazing Swan and Burning Japan to Fuego Austral and Midburn — an odyssey chronicled in her soon-to-be-released book, Once Upon a Time in the Dust. This is the third in Roxane’s Journal series sharing the sights, sounds and connections from Regional Burns that took place around the world in 2022.
Midburn. A return to dust. But instead of white powder blowing like wispy dancers across the Nevada plains, the sands of Israel’s Negev Desert shift like golden tides over tall dunes. Dunes that are made to be explored, wrapped in thick desert scarves that we journey through like pilgrims in search of adventure. At sunset the wind picks up and creates a mystical Middle Eastern scene, thick earthy sand swirling heavily around us flanked by distant Bedouin villages.
I could not imagine what lay ahead. Challenging beginnings gave way to deep moments of connection and transcendence. Lost to a parallel world dotted with whimsical art, secret Berlin-style underground clubs, and ancient ceremonies, here I let the journey be my guide, giving in to flow and love with an open heart, not knowing where it would take me. I would ultimately unlock a new level of self miles away from home.
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The last time I found myself in the Negev was four years ago. Back then I was just starting a tour of burns around the world, and this one stole my heart straight out of my chest. The world has now become a different place, and I board the Midburn bus eager for what is ahead.
We have all been islands adrift in a world of disconnection, thirsting for that space we call “home.” We come with the baggage we carry, our hearts full of expectation, of nervous anticipation. We come ready to build, to unwind, to let loose, and sometimes to let go. After the past strange years, this may be truer than ever. We look out of the window as the desert landscape comes into view, knowing that the person who we are coming in will come out different. After all, this would be my 17th burn around the world, and I have never left one of the global community’s parallel cities unchanged.
On arrival the signs leading up to the gates tell a story, like the countdown to the start of a race. They end in a biblical message: from dust we came and to dust we will return. That return stirs such deep emotion, sparking up memories of past times we burned, times when we felt totally free. Free to be our wild self, the one that wants to turn to a stranger and say hello, to giggle with childlike abandon all day, to dance to a bass that trembles all night. Covered in dust, together and whole. The self we too often switch off in the default world to conform. But now we return to dust once more. Ready to embark on a week of adventures that have no clear direction, but will somehow show us new paths.
Arriving at my camp Hafla Bafla, which takes people from the playa to crown as Sheiks, I am reunited with old friends from my last Midburn in 2018… friends who I have kept in touch with through these bizarre years, albeit virtually. I am the only international in a camp of roughly 40, one of the 400 non-Israelis who has traveled here. Only five percent of tickets sold are reserved for non-citizens. More so than last Midburn, I feel this otherness. It is hard to fit in when you cannot easily join a conversation.
Out on the Midburn playa, many of the camp signs are solely in Hebrew, so I walk down the city streets without knowing what the offerings are. This is unlike other burns I have attended around the world and feels somewhat alienating for outsiders. Hopefully this can be addressed in future so that the Burn spaces we know and love can continue to be inclusive and welcoming for all, in line with the principles.
I wonder if I am truly “home.” In this space I start to feel the niggling self-doubt. Did I make the right choice to come to this barren desert? Keen to make up for the time when we couldn’t gather, this would be my fourth burn this year. Maybe I was simply burned out? I seek cover in my tent waiting for the storm to blow over.
Our modern lives are full of distraction, we are programmed to look at our phones when we feel any hint of discomfort — which is why we look at them hundreds of times a day, like a child reaching for their pacifier. But here there are no more easy distractions. And because of it, it challenges us, and that in turn makes us grow. Later, I speak to a dear friend about how each burn is pushing us up to a new life level. The lows help us reach that level just as much as the highs.
And sometimes it’s the lows that end up creating bridges for connection. The next day I go to the nearby Mexicamp and push myself out of my comfort zone striking up a conversation with strangers. We share experiences of a challenging adaptation process and our moods soften. This is not only the case for internationals, an Israeli confides how he felt out of his depth in his first days. Suddenly I’m no longer alone, and it feels like I have finally arrived. We forget that some level of discomfort invariably takes place as we switch gears from default to the new reality we are immersed in. This is an inevitable rite of passage that allows us to emerge from the default cocoon, so we can fully give in to the magic of Immediacy once more.
That night I explore tall sand dunes with their art and sound stages tucked away in dusty ravines. I down a chili shot at Bookraf to gear up for some deep playa beats. The art dotted around the playa is smaller than I remember it. The effigy and temple are perhaps particularly underwhelming. Like the world over, the cost of building has meant the grandeur of the structures found at previous Midburn editions has had to be downsized. But as I would later discover, what they lack in size they make up for in interactivity.
The next day I meet the crew that would be my rock for the rest of the Burn — the crew that one seeks out in a crowd, the one that feels like home. The remaining days are a blur of experiences. During that time, we go where the wind takes us, not heading to any place in particular, with no set course. Just a clan of grown-up kids seizing the day ahead, marveling at the treasures that we come across. Some of these treasured moments linger in the mind like a mist. Sitting in a literal sound bath parked up in the middle of the desert, listening to the smooth Hebrew drawl guiding us through a mesmerizing sound journey. Finding a giant heart shaped structure with a stethoscope that amplifies the heartbeat, echoing through the space to remind us how alive we are. Sheltering in an enclosed space made of chains so heavy you can lean against them. Swinging under a giant rainbow.
The event falls silent at 11pm each night because of strict sound restrictions imposed by the authorities. This would be my first experience of a silent night burn. It was a somewhat eerie feeling walking through the quiet streets and camps. But in this enforced silence, stumbling upon a secret speakeasy with a Middle Eastern twist or Berlin-esque nightclub took on a particular appeal. An entire prohibition-style underworld lay in wait to discover.
Walking through the cold dusty night in search of a vibe, I remembered hearing of a secret club and, unsure if the rumors were true, we walked down the silent alleyways to find it. Suddenly we were in front of a black door complete with bouncer. Entering the fray our eyes lit up. A whole world that we couldn’t have imagined lay inside. A factory-like club set up in the middle of the Negev Desert complete with epic lights, sound system, a bar and couches, totally sealed and soundproof while the neighboring Bedouin villages slept unaware.
Given we had no particular place to go, we had no FOMO. We dusted ourselves down and chatted the hours away, connecting on a deep level. Rather than discovering the bright lights of the night, we discovered each other. We took our time, lost in the moment. Finally we headed home, stopping by a cushion-strewn lounge playing soft Arabic music. The nights had a different flavor and tempo here, slow and calm. Heart conversations replaced the space that would have been occupied by partying. This is the real intoxicant of the playa: the human connections take us infinitely higher. When we wander back at sunrise, we are tired and deeply touched by the stories we have shared, rather than the music we have moved to.
Thursday night is Burn Night — equivalent to what Saturday is for most of the network, the night when the big burns are celebrated. I say big with a pinch of salt as both the effigy and temple were smaller than they have been in the past. I think back to Midburn 2018. Then, a heart wrenchingly beautiful sculpture of a tin soldier and a ballerina, celebrating fragility and the wholeness we feel through love, had exploded in a symphony of flames. This year the effigy and temple took some time to burn, and few people stayed to see them topple. I took off back to the city to see a cabaret at the Backstage camp. And what a show: raw talent.
The last full day, which here is Friday, always has a particular taste we savor long after the event is done. This day would be no different, stored in the memory bank forever as one of the best days of my life. We rise in the morning, knowing that time is running out, slipping through our fingers like the golden sands that surround us. An acceleration and urgency grips us, and the 7,000 participant strong Midburn buzzes with energy. Today we will live to our fullest. We set off with our favorite crew, which by now feels like family. We feel alive with them, our energy levels aligning on this final day of abandon.
After a dusty backstreet exploration, we land at the city “airport” Burn Gurion (a clever twist on Tel Aviv’s main airport Ben Gurion). As the nights are silent, people make up for it with a heavy dose of partying during the day. We join the crowds dancing to the beat amongst the clouds that hang above the airport stage. We hug each other, we smile together, we shimmy to the ground. We laugh and readjust each other’s wonky accessories. We collectively mouth the words to a tune we know. We are lightheaded, silly, giddy, full of love.
After a quick-yet-eternal stop at camp we run to the act that’s been on everyone’s lips for the past day. The DJ’s richly layered music feels like our Burner anthem. He is part of our tribe, traveling to burns to rock the desert and its dusty vibe-hungry pilgrims all over the world. Unlike some of the heavier trance that features at Midburn this year, his elegant music takes us on a lyrical journey, voice and sound rising as hundreds of arms rise with it, heads down, eyes closed, carried away on a sonorous wave.
The sun sets in the distance as the music travels through us. We reach a new synergy and plain of Immediacy, the beauty of scenery and sound colliding. Chasmal, electricity in Hebrew, hangs thickly in the cooling night. The air is suddenly pink, the dust clouds everywhere tinted by the final rays of this glorious day.
The set finishes and we are spent. Elated, we head back to camp to prepare for the most moving experience yet. Beresheet, the Genesis camp is hosting a Shabbat dinner. We go to it with our hearts beating a little faster, already opening for the magic we know we will find there. There is something so touching, so timeless about a Shabbat ceremony. It is an ancient prayer practiced through the ages, and now it is being brought here, to this alternate reality of infinite gifting that we have created together. Somehow, we time our arrival perfectly just as it starts, a synchronicity that would accompany us all day. Most are dressed in white, as if to signal the purity of their intentions. The prayer then begins and the faces around us soften and crease into smiles, the warmth spreading like a balm through the crowd.
We gather a little closer, like children listening to the storytelling unfolding in the intimate space. These are traditions to be preserved, the words evoking images of ancient parchments opened like a book and dusted off by smooth wise hands. We are then called to join together. We lock arms like family despite being strangers just moments ago, to form a large human chain that circles the room. There is a sharp collective intake of breath as the final words are spoken. We observe the faces around us. Dusty, serene and worn by all the living we have done here this week. We remember when we thirsted for this human contact during the strange times of social isolation. And our heart swells with gratitude for this God-given gift. To rejoin as one dusty tribe. A feast is then served, bountiful and fresh as one can imagine in the middle of an arid desert. We sit on pillows and eat together, surrounded by soft chatter in the dimly lit scene, closing this unforgettable Shabbat ceremony as one.
Off we then go into the night, on an all-time high. Before the music abruptly stops at 11pm, we go to Catharsis. Upon the Israeli version of the Mayan Warrior, which we re-baptize the Bedouin Warrior, a famous local DJ rocks the desert ground. We next have a mission to enter the 360 world of the G-spot cinema. It is a psychedelic experience that draws a large queue. By some miracle we are able to make our way to the front and secure three dusty tickets for this one-of-a-kind desert screening.
We enter the dome and lie on our backs as a kaleidoscope of colors and movement lights up the 360 screen, transporting us to imaginary worlds. We press the hand in ours a little tighter, holding each other close for the ride. The show over, we leave the space for deep playa where we climb into a giant seashell art structure, emerging puzzled to find our shoes have been mismatched. Later, we recline and melt into giant sponge-filled bean bags at the Lemon Tree camp. We laugh till we cry — as some say here, we have metaphorically squeezed the lemon to its fullest this week.
We are drunk on love, high on life, wishing that this day would never end. But we know the end is just around the corner. The body eventually carries us back to rest and, as our heads hit our dusty pillows, we play what feels like a lifetime of memories back in our mind.
Tomorrow we will pack up camp. A whole city is disappearing around us. Megaphones will instruct weary campmates to stand to attention and dismantle what we have built. Arms flex under the weight of huge structures, moving as one to lay our city down for its yearly slumber. After an emotionally and physically testing day, we exit the gates with a lump in our throats to pick up the pieces of our default lives.
Back at home, we feel the intensity of what we have lived. Its enormity hits us. Nostalgia is such a powerful emotion. One that is sweet even when bitter. That longing for something, for someone, for a place in time that is already blurring at the edges. We hold it in our sight, breathing it in, like a fading mirage that we want to hold. Even though we welcome the comfort of a hot shower and a clean bed, a part of us will forever live in the space that we called “home” for the week. A space that was dirty, uncomfortable, exhausting yet indescribably wonderful at the same time.
Decompression starts and we delay our landing, exploring for another week with wide open hearts, continuing to weave and thirst for the bonds we made with our playa tribe. Later in Jerusalem, that holiest of cities, I would come full circle. The book on Regional Burns that I started writing in this land would finally be complete. As I connected to the energy point amongst the high Jerusalem hills, and later floated in the hypersaline waters of the Dead Sea, one of the lowest elevation places on earth, I knew I was living an unforgettable chapter. And that is all one can hope for — to live life as a story to be told.
I think back to the conversation I had with my friend about how each burn allows us to ascend to a new life level, a new version of self. This seems to resonate with the Midburn theme this year: Transitions. As my friend so beautifully put it, “When we come back we don’t land, we just take off from where we arrived.” Thank you Midburn for taking me so high.
Cover image of Midburn Temple, 2022 (Photo by Roxane Jessi)