This year, the anniversary of the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed (Mawlid Al-Nabi) fell on January 24, and as I have done on this day in previous years in Libya, I made sure that by the time the Muezzin sang the Maghreb prayer, I was safely inside my house with all of the doors and windows firmly shut. I was not hiding from lawless militias nor securing my house against hardened North African terrorists, rather I was taking sensible precautions to ensure I didn’t end the night in A&E with third degree burns.
This may seem slightly dramatic, but it is a genuine concern given that Libyans traditionally celebrate Mawlid with fireworks. In other countries ‘fireworks’ generally implies a firework display, where the audience watches equipped with blankets and lawn chairs, ready to launch into a chorus of ‘ooos’ and ‘aaahhs’ at the first bloom of colour in the sky. The Libyan approach however is rather more hands-on. The entertainment value does not come from watching the sky light up with colour, but from the adrenaline of lighting a big fat rocket then throwing it into the street to watch it explode, or holding a firework above your head as it shoots coloured sparks into the air. Young men also seem to take particular delight in lighting fireworks and throwing them from their car windows at unsuspecting passersby.
However much fun for the perpetrators, such exploding volleys pose a number of problems for those in the immediate vicinity. The first is the noise; if a firework explodes a few feet away from you then the bang is very big indeed and even if you are inside, the sound can be enough to make you drop whatever you might be holding at the time. Setting off hundreds of fireworks all in one place over a short amount of time leaves the air thick with smoke and ash, forming a heavy fog which irritates the lungs and eyes. And inevitably someone is going to get burnt. Fireworks go bang because they are packed with explosives, yet parents and shopkeepers alike seem to have no qualms about letting children ‘play’ with them.
Recently a friend and I walked past a group of young boys throwing fire crackers on the pavement in Martyrs’ Square. They were not throwing them maliciously but unfortunately we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the fire crackers got lodged in the hood of my friend’s coat which subsequently set on fire. Passersby helped put out the flame and luckily no real damage was done, but it might so easily have been a different story.
On the evening of 23 January (most fireworks are set off the evening before Mawlid) medical staff and ambulance crew volunteered their services in anticipation of an influx of people injured by fireworks. Sure enough, according to the Libya Herald, by 11pm that evening more than 120 people, mainly children, had been admitted to Tripoli hospitals for firework-related injuries. Most were minor but some had suffered serious burns to various parts of the body, with reports that in a number of cases amputations had been necessary.
So why do young Libyans (plus some older Libyans who should know better) throw fireworks to celebrate the Prophet’s birthday? It is a tradition which has been going on for some years in Libya, and is akin to firework displays to celebrate New Year in Europe. Mawlid is a public holiday in Libya, as in many other Arab countries, and the availability and inexpensiveness of fireworks in Libya means setting off fireworks is a fun, exciting way to celebrate. However with little restrictions over who can buy fireworks, few health and safety regulations about how they should be used and no large-scale official displays for people to attend, a frenzied firework free-for-all has become the norm in the run-up to Mawlid.
The Chief Mufti of Libya, Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ghariani argues that Libyans should not be celebrating Mawlid at all, saying in a recent statement that, “none of the first Caliphs — Abu Bakr, Umar nor Uthman and Ali — nor any of the Companions of the Prophet had celebrated it. Nor did any of the founders of the four schools of Islam condone it.”
While calling for Libyans to abandon Mawlid completely is unrealistic given its longstanding tradition in the country, the government and/or civil society should attempt to raise awareness of the dangers of fireworks so that they are used more responsibly and under strict adult supervision. There should be controls on who can sell fireworks and to whom, and parents must take responsibility for the safety of their children by ensuring they cannot buy or use fireworks without supervision. Enough young people were wounded during the revolution; there is no excuse for allowing irresponsible celebrations to injure even more.