Another Burning Man this time in North Africa


The event is named after its Saturday night ritual, the burning of a wooden effigy.

The image of a huge figure of a man set afire in the Nevada desert is one that has made news in the art world for years.  Moved from California to Nevada over 20 years ago, the festival brings free-spirits and art lovers from around the world to play on the playa – 50,000 people came last year.  It is symbolic act – conceived as a radical act of self-expression – and it produces some stunning art as well as some very interesting social dynamics among the faithful.

The symbolic gesture has found a new outlet this last week; in just a week four men have made equally radical acts, not of self-expression, but radical acts of political expression. As everyone in the world knows by now, it began in Tunis with a man who sold vegetables from a push cart; the government stopped him and he set fire to himself in protest.  That act brought down a sitting government of 23 years standing, lead to rioting and armed confrontations – finally today, it appears a new government has been formed.

A few days after the incident in Tunis, a man in Algeria set fire to himself, and that has been followed by one in Cairo – outside the egypt parliament – and one in Mauritania – out side of the royal palace each set fire to themselves. Truly desperate acts. None of these are guaranteed to bring down the government, and none of them are likely to improve the lives of those men – what drives men to such acts of desperation – my apologies to Chicago the musical?

In thinking about migrations of people, tribes and nations I have often wondered what forces cause people to suddenly leave the place that had been their home and wander into unknown places with no more than a vague hope of finding a better life.  It has happened many, many time over the course of human history, both a the individual and the social level.  Large migrations, like the barbarians or dust farmers have produced major social and political changes (think of fall of Rome); but one suspects, not without a great deal of individual pain as the people struggled to find a new place and a means of subsistence.

It must take a great deal to cause such a move,  we know it did in the 1930s when all of the crops failed in the mid-west forcing the farmers to move west and into the cities to survive; how much more pressure does a man have to feel to set fire to himself to demonstrate to his government the degree of pain in his and his family’s life?  Hunger appears to be one of the most power forces in human behavior.

Radical self-expression, I don’t think I will ever look at the Burning Man festival in quite the same way again.


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January 2011
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