In Life and Death, Libyan Poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi Sang the Song of Derna

His poem ‘The Rain’ predicted the devastating floods, and was a damning indictment of the political elite who impoverished his beloved city

In Life and Death, Libyan Poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi Sang the Song of Derna
The aftermath of devastating floods in Derna, Libya, in 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

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.
(Translation by Khaled Mattawa.)

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.

Trabelsi, the son of a prominent Derna family, loved his hometown so much he told friends he could never leave it. Derna occupies a singular place in the Libyan imagination. Several families there trace their lineage to Muslims who fled Spain during the Inquisition. Locals often cite this Andalusian heritage to explain the city’s historical reputation as a hub of cultural diversity. Several Libyan writers, poets and artists have Dernawi roots. Some refer to it as “the city of poets.” During the Italian colonial period, Derna and the nearby Green Mountains proved a key locus of resistance. Derna was long renowned for its lush gardens and waterfalls, and for producing the best fruits in Libya. Trabelsi grew up steeped in this history because his own family, which included religious scholars, theater pioneers, intellectuals and writers, was entwined in it. He was named after his grandfather, known in Derna as Sheikh Mustafa al-Trabelsi, who wrote a seminal book about the founding of the city.

Born in the late 1970s, Trabelsi’s life was to coincide with some of the most turbulent chapters in Derna’s modern history. From the early years of his rule, Gadhafi made clear his dislike of the eastern city. The more he neglected Derna, the more dissent grew in its narrow streets. As the years went by, opposition to the regime became religiously tinged. Islamist groups gained a firm foothold. By the time Trabelsi was in his teens, everyone in Derna knew that scores of locals had gone to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many returned to challenge the Gadhafi regime, joining jihadist outfits formed by other Afghanistan veterans, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

One prominent member of the now-defunct LIFG from Derna, who is four years older than Trabelsi, recalls joining the group at the age of 18. “I dreamt of getting rid of the regime. At the beginning of the 1990s some of the mujahideen started coming back from Afghanistan and spreading jihadi ideology in Derna. I believed that Gadhafi could not be toppled unless by force. This ideology made sense to young men like me.”

When Gadhafi brutally quashed an LIFG insurgency in eastern Libya in the mid-to-late 1990s, Derna and its hinterland bore the brunt of his retaliation. The city became even more run-down and forlorn. Unemployment soared. Life there grew more difficult. Its vibrant cultural past was now little more than a memory invoked by its poets, including, later on, Trabelsi. In one of his best-known poems, written in 2006, Derna is portrayed as a beautiful child fated to suffer great injustices and misfortunes. “You could understand Derna through Mustafa and his writing,” recalls Boubida.

As the young Trabelsi sought solace in poetry, many of his peers sought escape and meaning by joining the insurgency in post-invasion Iraq. The scale of this became apparent in 2007, when U.S. forces seized a stash of recruitment files from an al Qaeda safe house in the Iraqi city of Sinjar. The documents indicated that a proportionally higher percentage of Libyans fought in Iraq than nationals from other countries in the region. They also showed that more than 60% of the Libyan recruits had listed their home city as Derna. One was a distant relative of Trabelsi. “He was in his 20s, just like us,” recalls a friend of Trabelsi. “We tried to persuade him against it. We told him that Iraq was a serious war involving major powers and that he would not be able to change anything there.”

In 2008, Chris Stevens, an American diplomat posted in Tripoli, wrote a memo analyzing Derna’s jihadist subculture following a rare visit to the city. “Frustration at the inability of eastern Libyans to effectively challenge [Gadhafi’s] regime, together with a concerted ideological campaign by returned Libyan fighters from earlier conflicts, have played important roles in Derna’s development as a wellspring of Libyan foreign fighters in Iraq,” he wrote. “Other factors include a dearth of social outlets for young people, local pride in Derna’s history as a locus of fierce opposition to occupation, economic disenfranchisement among the town’s young men.”

Four years later, Stevens, then U.S. ambassador to Libya, was killed when the U.S. diplomatic compound in which he was staying in Benghazi was attacked by militants, among them jihadists from Derna.

Like many Libyans, Trabelsi was deeply religious but had no truck with Islamists. “He was skeptical of anyone who raised Islam as a political slogan,” explains one friend, adding that his faith was informed by the traditional variants of Sufism long popular in eastern Libya. Trabelsi not only abhorred the extremist militias that grew powerful in Derna after 2011, but he also despised the Muslim Brotherhood and frequently posted criticisms of the group on Facebook, blaming it for many of Libya’s post-Gadhafi travails.

In 2013, Trabelsi and Boubida worked together at a radio station in Derna. They loved introducing listeners to new music and often wrote songs together for local performers. One day, Sufian bin Qumu, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who founded the Derna chapter of Ansar al-Sharia, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. in 2014, visited the station. “He came with several men who were all heavily armed,” recalls Boubida. “He told us we could not play music on the radio or discuss anything that was against Islam.” Days later, an explosion at the station caused significant damage.

That was not Trabelsi’s only brush with the militants who then dominated his hometown. In May 2014, his father Abdulaziz al-Trabelsi, well known as the head of Derna’s court of appeal, was wounded when gunmen attempted to assassinate him as he walked to the mosque for evening prayer. Two years earlier, he had announced local courts were suspending their work due to poor security. Many judges, lawyers and other legal personnel in eastern Libya were targeted in what many believed was a deliberate campaign to bring the judicial system to its knees.

The intimacy of Derna meant that Trabelsi knew several men who fell into extremism, aside from his relative who fought in Iraq. Several of his neighbors had spent time in Afghanistan. Friends recall that he openly challenged younger neighbors who joined the Islamic State and other extremist militias. “‘This is not Islam,’ he would tell them,” one says. “They threatened him in response.”

In August 2016, after the Islamic State had been driven from Derna, Trabelsi was abducted by masked gunmen. They tortured him (“They beat him so hard with plastic pipes that his back was striped when we saw him later,” recalls a friend) and subjected him to mock executions. They ordered him to stop posting on Facebook. “Kidnapped and tortured for speaking the truth,” wrote Salem Owkaly, another prominent writer from Derna, on Facebook. “This is the first time that a writer, artist or poet has been kidnapped from the city of Derna despite four decades of tyrannical dictatorial rule, despite the hatred of this city by the previous regime.”

In a Facebook post in October 2018, Trabelsi recounted that a friend’s child had asked him if there was a public library in Derna (he said he was embarrassed to tell the youngster there was not), and they followed up with another question asking why the city was associated with terrorism. Trabelsi went on to bemoan the loss of what he calls Derna’s “tolerant past” when its places of worship included a church and synagogue as well as mosques, and there were libraries and theaters. He called for the provision of job opportunities, leisure and cultural facilities, and “moderate” religious discourse to immunize the younger generation against militancy.

Four months earlier, Haftar had declared victory in his battle to take Derna, even though fighting would continue in pockets of the old medina until early 2019.

Trabelsi’s animus toward Islamists of all hues meant that, unlike others in Derna, he was not staunchly opposed to Haftar’s operations. But, like many in eastern Libya, he became dismayed with the version of military rule Haftar and his sons sought to impose, even if the routing of extremists from Derna allowed artists and writers like Trabelsi to reclaim their place in the city.

He became deputy manager at the reopened House of Culture, housed in an Italian-built former church, and was happy when it drew crowds for summer readings in the handsomely restored courtyard. He spent hours holding court with friends at Najma, a humble cafe where local intellectuals sipped Turkish coffee alongside Egyptian laborers. Next to it was Derna’s landmark Sahaba mosque, where Trabelsi liked to pray. He became involved in local sporting clubs and began writing a postgraduate thesis on a famous Dernawi poet.

Life was easier compared to the years when extremists held sway in Derna, but Trabelsi had fresh worries. Wishing to see reconciliation after years of civil conflict, he signed open letters encouraging dialogue. “The price was very high — the loss of lives and buildings, and thousands of families displaced,” he observed in one Facebook post. “There is no hope in revenge, no benefit in displacement or throwing accusations.” He wrote about his concerns regarding the Madkhalis, ultraconservative Salafists who form a key component of Haftar’s forces and now control most mosques in eastern Libya. He also fretted over another byproduct of the new dispensation in Derna: the emergence of a tribalist mindset that rekindled old animosities between city residents of diverse origins and tribes that consider themselves Indigenous to the city’s hinterland. He grumbled on Facebook about being told “to go back to where you come from” — a reference to his surname, which relates to the Libyan capital, Tripoli — and retorted that his family had lived in Derna for centuries.

Trabelsi’s biggest frustration, however, was one he shared with millions of other Libyans: corruption. “He had two enemies, extremism and corruption,” recalls a friend. Whether at the local level — before the floods, Derna’s municipal council was accused of embezzling millions of dinars allocated for postwar reconstruction — or nationally, he saw endemic graft as the main obstacle holding Libya back. He frequently voiced his exasperation on Facebook. “Who will save the Libyan people from themselves?!” he wondered in late 2020. In February 2023, on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising, he struck a bitter note: “No one thanks the revolution except those who won from it.” In early September, little over a week before Storm Daniel, he wrote: “Come and walk in the streets of [Derna] to see corruption walking cheerfully, with all pride and arrogance, striking … in the eyes of those who open their lips with a word.” Days later, he posted a photograph of a collapsed mountain road outside Derna and a report on the emergency meeting at the House of Culture.

“To whom do we cry out about the catastrophe that engineers and specialists are sure will happen? The disaster that will befall the valley and end everything … after which our cries will be of no use.”

Today the Derna Trabelsi knew and loved is no more. Floodwaters leveled the House of Culture and destroyed the Najma cafe. The Sahaba mosque still stands, however, and no one was surprised that it was there that hundreds of furious Dernawis gathered within days of Storm Daniel demanding answers and accountability. Several protesters were detained — a clear message that no further demonstrations would be tolerated.

Trabelsi’s poem about the rain, as translated by the Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa, traveled across the world after it was picked up by international media. Outside Libya, many saw in his lines a climate emergency parable. For Libyans, the poem — and the story of Trabelsi’s life and death — was a damning indictment of their political elite. Several Libyan organizations have called for an independent, international investigation into the floods, questioning the failure of authorities to maintain aging infrastructure, including the two dams that burst. In December, Human Rights Watch urged the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to initiate an inquiry. Libyans continue to share Trabelsi’s writing, marveling at how he appeared to foretell the tragedy that would befall his hometown. “We have lost Mustafa,” says his friend Habil, once one of the regulars at the Najma cafe. “But he lives on in his poetry.”

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy