Another fireworks factory has exploded, spewing toxic smoke, torching crops and sending several people to hospital. This is not a rare occurrence on a very small island with 35 of them.
There were seven serious explosions during my six years in Malta: Għarb in 2010; Għaxaq, Kirkop and Għarb again in 2012; Zebbug in 2013, Zebbug again — a “small blast” this time — in 2014; and Gudja in 2016.
That last one was a whopper.
I was sitting at my desk in Zurrieq with the window open when my curtains suddenly pushed inwards, as though a big puff of air had hit them, but there was no breeze. The sound of a massive explosion followed moments later.
I went back to work, but a column of smoke from the far side of the airport made it clear this wasn’t just the usual festa excess. An entire stockpile of petards had exploded, flattening a barn, destroying several cars belonging to “enthusiasts”, and shattering windows over a wide radius.
The explosives were being stored illegally in a farmer’s field right next to the airport runway, but no one bothered to investigate who they belonged to or why they went off. Such issues were overshadowed by the miraculous survival of a goat pulled from the rubble of the collapsed barn the next day.
The farmer, a Mr. Catania, told the Times of Malta that he had decided to rename this goat Lucky.
“You’d have to be pretty lucky to survive something like that,” he said. And then he looked at the smouldering ruins where a building used to be, and pointed at a severed head. “That sheep was less fortunate.”
Malta in summer is a lot like living in the middle of a firing range. Like most foreign residents, my first exposure to this strange obsession with aerial bombardment came by way of the village festa.
We were woken one morning by a terrible wailing, a sound like a machine gone off its gears. As the initial shock wore off, I heard the insistent pounding of a drum grow closer and pass away.
“…do you hear a tuba…?”
It was 8am on Saturday, and a marching band was shuffling down the narrow street past our house. We would soon discover that our village had three marching bands.
That same afternoon, I heard someone hammering outside my study. This was odd because I was one floor up.
I opened the window and found myself face to face with a grizzled man in a flat cap. We were inches away from each other, but he just looked at me and kept talking to someone else on the ground. I couldn’t think of how to break this awkward stare, so we gazed at each other until he was finished, and I quietly closed the shutter.
He had hammered a spike into the wall of our house and strung a wire with lights across the road. They were doing this all the way down the street.
A few days after these strange incidents, I was startled from my bed like a projectile by a massive bombardment.
Civil war had just broken out in Libya, and two of their fighter jets had landed at the airport. At first I thought the conflict had spread across the small gap of sea and come directly to Zejtun, but it didn’t sound like artillery. The patterns were too repetitive, and the source was quite near.
I pulled on my shorts and trudged up the steps to our highest roof. I could see the main church, and the valley that separated our village from Tarxien. I watched for a few minutes and then trudged back down.
“Fireworks,” I said.
“At 8 in the morning?”
“Some idiots are letting off fireworks in the daytime.”
My wife pointed to her ears and shook her head. We had to resort to the passing of notes. As the bombardment increased, I expected windows to shatter at any moment, and doors to leap off their hinges.
A thin trickle of plaster dust was already falling from the ceiling as each new round threatened to bring down the walls around us. If Jericho could be felled by a trumpet, then surely this was enough to wipe all but a bunker off the map.
“Why would anyone do this to themselves?” I said during a brief lull.
No one was ever able to tell me. Despite the explosive omnipresence of petards, I never met a Maltese person who admitted to liking them — and I asked everyone I knew.
I concluded that it was either an offering to the patron saint of hearing loss, or an attempt at enacting the apocalypse.
As my first island summer wore on, I found myself wondering if I dug a deep enough shelter, would I be able to form a coherent thought or read a paragraph all the way through? Sadly, no. Tunnelling would just be busywork, and a distraction.
Earplugs hold no power over the petard, nor does any form of industrial hearing protection. And that’s not surprising.
In 2009, a Facebook group concerned with noise reportedly claimed that petards blasted off at the Lija feast measured “up to 156 decibels from a 300-metre distance”. For comparison, an F-16 fighter jet at full afterburner generates a mere 139 decibels.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), loud noise over 120 decides can cause immediate damage to your hearing. Such sounds don’t have to be prolonged. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) says, “A single loud blast or explosion that lasts for less than 1 second can cause permanent hearing loss right away.” But don’t bother telling fireworks hobbyists any of this. They won’t hear you.
If they aren’t covering their ears, they’re probably coughing. Fireworks spew a cocktail of chemicals into the air, including particles of lead, copper, strontium, potassium, magnesium, aluminium, and large concentrations of nitric oxide (NO) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), and in Malta this happens in densely populated areas.
A residue of thick toxic smoke filled our valley each summer and fell on the fields below. Much was washed into the sea, along with the partially-burned paper that fluttered from the sky. Fireworks chemicals were also measured in the food chain in significant amounts, which caused me to stop buying local produce despite wanting to support local farmers.
I did, however, support our local festa. I admired their dedication, even if I didn’t share their love of insistent, repetitive, indefatigable bombardments.
Each year, old ladies knocked on our door seeking donations for the wonderful lighting and embroidered banners — the pavaljuni — that graced the village square and turned every alley into an aisle of red and gold.
I opened my wallet and gave generously, and I always took a moment to appreciate their hard work on the way to the airport.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the only way to escape petards is to leave the island at feast time and go as far away as possible, say to Murmansk or Tristan da Cunha.