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Libyan poet Mustafa al-Trabelsi, who warned of flood risks, died in Derna flood

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In the northeastern Libyan city of Derna this week, thousands of protesters gathered to demand accountability after floods washed much of their city and many of their loved ones into the sea.

(CROSSTALK)

FADEL: They want Libyan officials arrested for failing to heed repeated warnings that the two dams that protect Derna would collapse in the face of floods - and they did, killing thousands. Among those trying to warn his city leaders was Mustafa al-Trabelsi. He did it in the form of a poem. And on September 10, he died in the floods he warned would come. But his poem lives on. It's been shared among Libyans as a symbol of the conflict, corruption and climate change that led to this travesty. And Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan poet at the University of Michigan, translated the Arabic poem into English.

KHALED MATTAWA: (Speaking Arabic). 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.

FADEL: An alarm bell. Tell us about who wrote this poem.

MATTAWA: Mustafa was an activist, clearly. In Libya, to be involved with culture and free speech and so on, during Gadhafi and even now, post-rebellion, you have to be an activist because there has been a suppression of speech again under the various governments. And he's also an activist in terms of watching over the ecology and what's happening to the city.

FADEL: Yeah. And when did he write this poem, which sounds so much like a prediction of exactly what happened?

MATTAWA: I cannot - I have not found out where. He certainly reposted it. It says September 10, 5:35 a.m., so just a few hours before the floods came and took the city and demolished it.

FADEL: So he passed away in these floods. But this poem...

MATTAWA: Yeah.

FADEL: ...Has been shared widely among Libyans and the Libyan diaspora. What is it about this poem that has caught the nation's attention and the diaspora's attention?

MATTAWA: You know, it has done what good poems do. It doesn't decry or bemoan. It just sort of tells the truth in a very compressed, musical fashion. It's prophetic in that it just told us everything that we know about the rain. If you're from North Africa, the rain is a blessing, a promise of help and a sign of goodness because it's so rare. But in this case, as had been happening, the rain is a sign of the broken infrastructure and of the corruption that had taken over the country in every facet.

FADEL: And for people who don't remember, in 2011, Libyans rose up against Gadhafi, Moammar Gadhafi, the leader of Libya at the time, ousted him with the world's help.

MATTAWA: Yeah.

FADEL: But it's been a country that's been plagued for over 10 years with conflict, rival militias, rival governments, and now this flood that overtook the infrastructure in Derna, which is a city of 90,000 people at least. Why did you decide to translate this poem for more of the world to see it?

MATTAWA: I found a poem that said everything very well. I am grateful for Mustafa's work, not just in this poem, in other poems where he even predicted the demise of the city in other ways. And I'm grateful that he's given us a poem that tells us that human conscience - whether in Derna or in America, or Africa, or Asia, or anywhere - is alive and well when it tries to monitor the world, watch it and try to express things in a way that moves us.

FADEL: Khaled Mattawa teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. He is a poet and a translator of poems. Thank you so much for your time.

MATTAWA: Thank you, Leila. I appreciate being with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LE TRIO JOUBRAN SONG, "MASAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Majd Al-Waheidi
Majd Al-Waheidi is the digital editor on Morning Edition, where she brings the show's journalism to online audiences. Previously, Al-Waheidi was a reporter for the New York Times in the Gaza Strip, where she reported about a first-of-its-kind Islamic dating site, and documented the human impact of the 2014 Israel-Gaza war in a collaborative visual project nominated for an Emmy Award. She also reported about Wikipedia censorship in Arabic for Rest of World magazine, and investigated the abusive working conditions of TikTok content moderators for Business Insider. Al-Waheidi has worked at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy, and holds a master's degree in Arab Studies from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. A native of Gaza, she speaks Arabic and some French, and is studying Farsi.
Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.

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