Mary Fitzgerald

His poem ‘The Rain’ predicted the devastating floods, and was a damning indictment of the political elite who impoverished his beloved city. In Libya, Mustafa al-Trabelsi is known as the poet who predicted the floods.

Four months later, the dead are still being counted in his hometown of Derna, the worst hit when Storm Daniel raged across the Mediterranean in early September 2023. The flooding that ensued killed at least 4,352 people and displaced more than 43,000. Another 8,000 remain unaccounted for, according to the United Nations. Trabelsi is among those whose bodies are expected never to be found. His wife Nahla Ismail’s corpse was recovered within days. Locals believe most of the missing were likely washed out to sea.

It was close to midday on Sunday, Sept. 10, when Trabelsi, a teacher who wrote poetry in his spare time, opened his Facebook page and began to type. Storm Daniel had slammed into eastern Libya the previous day, bringing torrential rains and prompting residents of coastal areas, including seafront neighborhoods in Derna, to evacuate. By the following morning, Derna’s Security Directorate had ordered a full curfew, a decision that would later appear devastatingly misguided.

When Trabelsi sat at his laptop that Sunday, heavy rain continued to drum on the windows of the modest home he shared with Nahla in downtown Derna. Four days earlier, at a public meeting at Derna’s House of Culture, Trabelsi and other concerned locals had discussed the possibility of floods, particularly given the perilous state of two dams located upstream from the city. Specialists had repeatedly warned that the dams, which had been built decades ago, were poorly maintained and risked collapse. No one within Libya’s two rival governments, nor within Derna’s municipal council, seemed to be listening.

Trabelsi’s Facebook page was popular; more than 10,000 friends and followers read the poetry and pithy commentary he posted there. He decided to post a short poem he had written and previously published. Its title was “The Rain.”

The rain
Exposes the drenched streets,
the cheating contractor,
and the failed state.
It washes everything,
bird wings
and cats’ fur.
Reminds the poor
of their fragile roofs
and ragged clothes.
It awakens the valleys,

shakes off their yawning dust
and dry crusts.
The rain
a sign of goodness,
a promise of help,
an alarm bell.

Trabelsi returned to his laptop that evening after walking around his neighborhood despite the curfew. “One of the last people to see him on the street said he was telling children to go home,” recalls his friend, Salim Habil. Trabelsi’s Facebook post at 7:44 p.m. reflected growing alarm in the city. “The scenes are frightening, and things may escalate to a disaster,” he wrote before lamenting that local authorities were not only ill-prepared but also lacked sufficient rescue personnel and equipment. His parents, whose home was on higher ground, had earlier asked him to come stay with them, as had his close friend Taha Boubida. “Mustafa thought his neighborhood would not be badly affected,” says Boubida. “Everyone in Derna was afraid of flooding from the sea, they didn’t realize the real danger would come from the dams.”

At 9:37 p.m., Trabelsi wrote: “We have only one another in this difficult situation. Let’s stand together until we drown.” Just before midnight, his wife posted several photographs on her Facebook page, apparently taken from the windows of their home. The images show submerged streets and cars upturned as the churning floodwaters rose even higher. “Derna … oh my God,” she wrote. Boubida had one last conversation with Trabelsi before the cell phone networks were cut. The dams had buckled and then broken, releasing a massive torrent that swept entire neighborhoods away as it coursed through the heart of the city. “The water around their house was already too high when we spoke for the last time, they couldn’t leave,” he recalls. “Mustafa told me, ‘Taha, I think this is the end.’”

Derna, a city of some 100,000 inhabitants perched on the Mediterranean, had experienced flooding before. The story of how hundreds of Dernawis drowned in 1959 was passed down the generations, inspiring local writers and poets like Trabelsi. Another deluge in 2011, while less severe, reminded residents of their vulnerability. But the people of Derna, long a bastion of opposition to the regime of Moammar Gadhafi, had other things on their mind that year. The city was one of the first to join the quickening uprising that eventually brought an end to Gadhafi’s 42 years in power. As elsewhere in Libya, the high hopes that accompanied Gadhafi’s overthrow soon evaporated in Derna, but the decade that followed was particularly traumatic for the city. Extremist militias filled the initial post-uprising security vacuum and imposed ultraconservative mores. The Islamic State group’s first Libyan affiliate emerged in the city in late 2014 and subjected its residents to multiple horrors, such as public executions, before it was driven out by local armed groups, including rival extremist militias. Derna was later besieged for more than a year by the forces of the septuagenarian commander Khalifa Haftar, who eventually took control of the city after months of fighting that displaced thousands.


Mary Fitzgerald has reported on and researched Libya since February 2011 and lived there in 2014


Related Articles