Bayan Bibi was walking with a friend along a busy shopping street in Beirut when she suddenly felt a strange pain.
“I felt something come into my back, as if there is a stone from above,” she says, standing on the spot where the incident occurred three years ago. “I felt like my spine cut into two pieces.”
As she struggled to find her feet that day, it slowly dawned on her: She was struck by a bullet that had fallen from a clear blue sky.
“In those few seconds, I was wondering, what is happening to me? Is there anyone who hates me that much to shoot me?”
At funerals, graduations, birthdays, weddings — even when a political leader just talks on television — firing guns into the air is a favorite way to celebrate for many in Lebanon.
But, as Bibi found out the hard way, what goes up must come down.
The practice is illegal, but still widespread. The law says anyone found guilty of firing a weapon in a crowded area will be punished by a jail sentence of six months to three years. But some politicians argue the law is toothless, and are calling for tougher sentences for those found guilty.
Media have reported at least seven incidents nationwide of people being injured or killed by celebratory gunfire so far this year. (The Lebanese authorities do not publish statistics about it.) Last month, the death of firefighter Wissam Bleik by a stray bullet in the Beirut neighborhood of Burj Abi Haidar caused a national uproar. There were two other killings like it that same month. In March, 8-year-old Patinia Raidy was killed by a stray bullet in Jbeil.
Ghassan Moukhaiber, a lawmaker with the Change and Reform parliamentary bloc, proposed a bill last month that would raise the maximum sentence to life in prison anyone caught breaking the gunfire law, depending on the seriousness of the consequences. The proposed law would also place harsh fines on offenders and permanently ban them from owning firearms.
There are signs that police are taking a firmer line. Last week, 11 people were arrested for firing their guns into the air during municipal elections.
Bibi was hit by a bullet fired from another neighborhood in the city. Lebanon’s parliament speaker and leader of the Amal movement, Nabih Berri, had appeared on television moments before. As is customary, his followers had fired their weapons in the air to show support.
Celebrating in this way is not limited to a specific group in Lebanon: Sunni, Shiite and Christian leaders all have supporters who struggle to express themselves without an automatic rifle. When Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite political and militant movement Hezbollah, goes on TV, the crack of automatic gunfire echoes across the city. In other parts of the country, weddings are the perfect occasion to fill the sky with lead.
Above is a short satirical video by Lebanese advocacy group Cheyef 7alak to highlight the dangers of celebratory gunfire.
Lebanon’s political leaders have tried to address the problem before. Nasrallah has repeatedly called for his followers to refrain from firing guns in the air, warning that those who do so will be punished. The few who continue to partake put themselves in the odd position of making a loud show of support for a leader while also defying his rules.
Muhammad, 23, is a supporter of Berri, the parliament speaker. Whenever Berri makes a speech on TV, Muhammad goes to the roof of his apartment building in the poor Beirut suburb of Dahiya and fires his AK-47 toward the sky until all the rounds are gone. He says he can go through about 180 bullets in one sitting.
“It’s to show support for our leaders. And to show them, we have your back when you need us. That’s how we show them that,” he says. “It’s like measuring d*cks, you know?”
But Muhammad isn’t ignorant of the dangers his pastime poses.
“When you are doing that it’s like an adrenaline rush, you don’t think of anything. I’m not gonna lie, the feeling is good, it’s euphoric. Maybe after you think ‘oh, maybe I might have hurt someone.’”
“I’m not gonna lie, the feeling is good, it’s euphoric,” says one rifle shooter.
Muhammad says he knows it is wrong to fire his gun in the air, but he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Dahiya, home to a large number of supporters of the Shiite parties Hezbollah and Amal, has long been underdeveloped and often ignored by the government. He says any new law is unlikely to have an impact there.
“The law doesn’t have that much of a presence in our area. Not because we don’t want them to come, we would love their help, but they abandoned us many many years ago. We have our own law. We have our own codes,” he says.
Bibi says she feels no anger toward the person who fired the bullet that injured her.
“I wasn’t, and am still not, angry from what happened. This guy who shot me, I don’t know him. I don’t care who this guy is and I don’t blame him. I blame the people who raised him in this bad way. I blame the people who are responsible, the minister or the political people who raised their supporters in this negative way.”
She does, however, want people to think twice before they fire their guns into the air.
“I am just making awareness to stop this violence, to stop expressing our feelings always in a violent way … that’s it.”