My guest today is Hassan El-Tayyab, author of Composing Temple Sunrise: Overcoming Writer’s Block at Burning Man. I know nothing about Burning Man, so I’ve asked him to explain what it is. Before I turn the blog over to Hassan, here’s a bit about the book:
Composing Temple Sunrise is a coming-of-age memoir about a 26-year-old songwriter’s journey across America to find his lost muse.
Triggered by the Great Recession of 2008, Hassan El-Tayyab loses his special education teaching job in Boston and sets out on a cross-country adventure with a woman named Hope Rideout, determined to find his lost muse. His journey brings him to Berkeley, CA, where he befriends a female metal art collective constructing a 37-foot Burning Man art sculpture named “Fishbug.” What follows is a life-changing odyssey through Burning Man that helps Hassan harness his creative spirit, overcome his self-critic, confront his childhood trauma, and realize the healing power of musical expression.
In this candid, inspiring memoir, singer-songwriter Hassan El-Tayyab of the Bay Area’s American Nomad takes us deep into the heart of what it means to chase a creative dream.
After experiencing multiple losses (family, home, love, job, self-confidence) , El-Tayyab sets out on a transcontinental quest that eventually lands him in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. His vivid descriptions capture both the vast, surreal landscapes of the Burning Man festival and the hard practice of making art.
Please give a warm welcome to Hassan El-Tayyab:
Burning Man is a difficult thing to describe, as it is so many things to so many different people. People who have never been all seem to have an opinion as well. I’d start off by saying, you can’t really know what this event is about until you go. I encourage everyone to do their own cost-benefit analysis after they experience it first-hand. With that preamble, I’ll begin to explain what I think it is.
Burning Man is one of the world’s biggest annual do-it-yourself events taking place in the Black Rock desert of Nevada at the end of August each year. Many have called it a cultural phenomenon. It started with only a few hundred people in the early 90s, but has grown to hold about 70,000 people each year. People of all ages come from all over the planet to construct a temporary city from the ground up, filled with art cars, behemoth fire art installations, interactive exhibits, sound camps, costumes, and live performances of all genres, skill levels, and styles. Many of these communities that occupy the event spend much of the year preparing for this. What’s created is one of the most unique human/nature made experiences I’ve ever been to. In essence, Burning Man is a giant canvass for experimenting with human potential.
This special event is guided by 10 principles that set the tone for the overall vibe and experience on the ground. They include radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy. It might help a first timer to examine these points closely.
Burning Man is a completely cashless society. Being in an environment where you can’t buy things after spending all your life inside a capitalist society is a refreshing thing for any world view and potentially life changing. There is also much excess on the Playa too that can feel uncomfortable for many. Some of what has evolved seems very similar to the default world as folks jockey for position and status with material possessions they have brought to the desert with them. You have a choice to let this bother you or not. When I’m there, I focus on my personal experience and my good friends. I always seem to have a great time! Like anywhere, the more you give, the more you get. I find that when I’m actively contributing and don’t play the role of spectator, I have the most worthwhile experiences.
Radical Self Expression and Radical Inclusion are two other hallmarks of Burning Man. Be prepared for an anything goes environment. Burners accept people of all faiths, race, and backgrounds as the status quo. This is definitely the sentiment you feel out there. You feel loved by strangers as if they were your close friends in a very touching way. You could wear a tutu on a unicycle and no one would give you a second look. You can walk down the road completely naked and, chances are, you’ll see 10 others doing the same thing giving you a thumbs up. That said, I find the principle of radical inclusion held with a bit of tension as well. The event is still quite cost prohibitive and the vast majority of the community is white.
The “Burning Man” references the giant wooden effigy that is burned on the Saturday before the end of the event. People gather around and watch a 60+ foot sculpture burn to the ground. What ensues is probably the largest and wildest LED lit party I’ve ever been to. On Sunday night, the Temple burn happens. This is a more somber affair. The Temple is another large wooden building that spends the entire week getting filled with writings, shrines, memories, pain, suffering, and tears. I see this as the spiritual epicenter of the playa during the week event. It’s a place you can go to be quiet and reflect on life and loss.
On Sunday evening, the building along with the tens of thousands of notes, shrines, and memories are burned to the ground as people look on in silence. It’s hard not to see tears streaming down cheeks all around you as this occurs. I find this to be the most profound moment at Burning Man as you get to share a truly spiritual and transcendent moment with thousands of other people that’s not wrapped in dogma. It’s just about healing. Never in my life have I witnessed something like this on such a big scale.
I’ll leave you with this. My life long burner friend told me my first year when I asked him about Burning Man. He said, “Burn your expectations and things can be wondrous.”
About the author
Hassan El-Tayyab is an award-winning singer/songwriter, author, teacher, and cultural activist currently residing in the San Francisco Bay Area. His critically acclaimed Americana act American Nomad performs regularly at festivals and venues up and down the West Coast and beyond and he teaches music in the Bay Area.
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