Anna In Somalia A man is trapped in a remote prison. And he's trapped in his own mind. Until he hears a knock on the wall.... and words from another time and place.
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Anna In Somalia

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Anna In Somalia

Anna In Somalia

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The six months before Mohamed went to prison were the best six months of his life. He'd landed this great job managing a Pepsi plant. And he'd found true love on his first date.

MOHAMED: We went to a small restaurant near where we live.

WARNER: Her name was Ismahan - 20 years old, teller at a state bank.

MOHAMED: And, you know, we were talking shyly, of course. You know, she was very shy. And we realized that we wanted to get married.

WARNER: That's it, love at first site.

MOHAMED: Yeah, yeah. In a sense, yeah.


WARNER: Mohamed said he was just so struck by how generous she was and smart. And they connected about everything from the future of their country to the music they liked. Whatever images the word Somalia calls to mind, the Somalia where Mohamed lived was in a cultural renaissance. This was 1981. It was under communist rule. And the dictator, he was a dictator, but he was also a big fan of Somali culture and music. Music was actually a big part of how Mohamed courted Ismahan. He made her mix tapes. This was the '80s.

MOHAMED: She was into songs and stuff like that, yeah.

WARNER: Do you sing or did she sing?

MOHAMED: Oh, she's a better singer.

WARNER: So a few months after Mohamed and Ismahan got married, Mohamed got a phone call from the director of the local public hospital.

MOHAMED: Will you please help me bring some donations from the communities?

WARNER: He was desperate for donations.

MOHAMED: For medicine and for bedding, in fact.

WARNER: That music-loving dictator, his name was Siad Barre, he'd cut off supplies to the hospital in retaliation for an independence movement in the region. The doctor had been calling all his friends in secret.

MOHAMED: Yeah, we were talking all the time.

WARNER: Saying, you know, you work for Pepsi, you have connections, you know people, can we raise the money discreetly ourselves? But Mohamed wanted to go big.

MOHAMED: I suppose maybe I wanted to share my happiness.

WARNER: What do you mean by share your happiness?

MOHAMED: You know, contribute 'cause there are other people who are less fortunate than us.

WARNER: Mohamed was in that stage of new love when you just kind of think the world is full of good feeling and if everybody knew what was going on, they would do the right thing. And he takes this bold and pretty risky move. He writes a letter...

MOHAMED: Some kind of newsletter.

WARNER: ...About the hospital conditions.

MOHAMED: Yes, and the conditions of the country.

WARNER: Essentially implying that the dictator is not doing right by us and we've got to step up ourselves. A couple of weeks later, Mohamed and Ismahan heard a knock on their door in the middle of the night.

MOHAMED: National security people. They have no warrant or anything like that. They just said we need to take him. And I could see her, my wife, and I could remember her and her eyes.

WARNER: What was in her eyes?

MOHAMED: You know, love and also terror.

WARNER: Mohamed is accused of treason and sentenced to life in solitary confinement.

MOHAMED: Blindfolded, handcuffed and sent to a cell.

WARNER: And this is where the story really begins. Mohamed's cell is tiny, maybe six feet by six feet, concrete walls, hole in the floor for a toilet and a window high up that lets in just a little bit of light.

MOHAMED: It's very dark. And cockroach come from the toilet.

WARNER: Cockroaches?

MOHAMED: Cockroach. And they would fly off to wall towards you and excrement with their feet. So...

WARNER: On their feet would be excrement from the toilet?


WARNER: After the cockroaches come the rats and the mice and the mosquitoes.

MOHAMED: The noise of the mosquitoes (imitating mosquito buzzing) like an engine, you know, jet engine.

WARNER: But even worse than that sound...

MOHAMED: (Imitating mosquito buzzing).

WARNER: ...Is the buzzing in his own mind because in this prison, there is one rule.

MOHAMED: It was strictly forbidden to talk to your neighbor.

WARNER: He's forbidden to speak to the other inmates.

MOHAMED: So you walk forward and backward.

WARNER: Pacing back and forth.

MOHAMED: And this is a tiny place to walk back and forth, three short steps.

WARNER: So, like, three short steps forward, three short steps backward, three short steps forward.


WARNER: So that is his life now until one day...


WARNER: ...He hears a knock on the wall. And that knock becomes words from another time and another place.

MOHAMED: All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

WARNER: This is ROUGH TRANSLATION. It's the show from NPR bringing you familiar conversations from unfamiliar perspectives. I'm Gregory Warner. In this episode, the story of a story translated across time and space and culture and a concrete wall that saved a man's life.

MOHAMED: I should build a monument for that book (laughter).

WARNER: One book that changed everything when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. It's eight months into Mohamed's prison sentence, and he's in his cell, as always. He's alone - not quite, though.

MOHAMED: There were so many different types of ants, I swears.


MOHAMED: Ants, you know, tiny ones - really, just like watching a film - great film - the way the look around for food, the way they treat each other. When you give them time, it's another world. I would have loved to go see that hill, their holes where they were staying. But I couldn't because it was all concrete.

WARNER: And then, one evening, when the guard is at the other end of the line of cells, just out of earshot, the guy in the cell next to Mohamed whispers.

MOHAMED: ...Through the door saying, learn ABC through the wall. Learn ABC through the wall. I did not understand. Learn ABC through the wall. How can I? I look at the wall between us, so - but then he knocked on the wall. He did this. (Knocking).

WARNER: And when Mohamed leaned over to the wall, he could hear this sound.

MOHAMED: That's sharp, and that...


WARNER: A code.

MOHAMED: You say, yes, I understand now. And he starts to just - A (knocking), B (knocking), C (knocking), D (knocking), E (knocking), F (knocking).

WARNER: First an alphabet and then words.

And what do you - what was the first sentence that you heard?

MOHAMED: (Speaking Somali), which means peace in Somali, and, well, it means how are you, also, yeah. (Speaking Somali) - I could repeat that whether all the - all that day for all - without doing anything else.

WARNER: And so Mohamed can now spend most of a day tapping back and forth to talk with the guy in the next cell about politics, to share a childhood memory. But at night, when he can't sleep, he turns again to the concrete, and then again and again.

MOHAMED: I was only sleeping few, maybe half an hour, then wake up in half an hour.

WARNER: Mohamed would wake up from a nightmare sweaty and in a panic.

MOHAMED: I lost my sleep.

WARNER: Are you awake, he'd tap.


MOHAMED: I can't sleep.

WARNER: I need to talk.


MOHAMED: When I tried to sleep, when I'm falling asleep, suddenly my heart race - and so fast. So I was thinking - there was race - that this is the smell of death.

WARNER: What is the smell of death?

MOHAMED: It's - I think it's fear.

WARNER: Mohamed had a lot of fearful thoughts in that prison cell, especially about his wife.

MOHAMED: I could not imagine how she is because there no news from the world, from the outside world. It's really difficult to imagine where she is, even whether she's alive.

WARNER: And there was a meaner thought, as well.

MOHAMED: The government was encouraging wives to divorce their husbands.

WARNER: The government was saying you should divorce.

MOHAMED: Yes, because they are a traitors, these people who are in prison. Even some sharifs found Quranic verses to support that.

WARNER: Divorce in Somali society - in Islam - is usually the husband's exclusive right. But there are these Quranic verses that can allow a wife to choose to divorce her husband if the husband's absent for some time. And sheikhs loyal to the dictator use those verses to pressure the wives of political prisoners.

MOHAMED: Quite a number of people were divorced from their wives. I was thinking sometimes that she could.

WARNER: She was only 20 years old. They had only been married for three months. And he was sentenced to life.

MOHAMED: You think she's probably enjoying herself. She's living her life, and I am in this place.

WARNER: At first, it's just a little twinge of resentment, and then the feeling comes back stronger and sharper. He thinks, she should be visiting me. But wait, she can't visit me.

MOHAMED: Nobody can visit this prison. Nobody can get in touch. And you still - you blame her for not getting in touch with you.

WARNER: And what do you think about her in those moments when you're blaming her for not visiting you?

MOHAMED: You know, they're very far from love. You probably hate her at that particular time.

WARNER: Every time that Mohamed tapped one of these dark thoughts onto the wall, someone was listening. And the someone on the other side of the wall was a doctor. Dr. Adan Abokor was also an inmate in this prison. And as the doctor is listening to these taps on the wall, he's also diagnosing them.

ADAN ABOKOR: Acute anxiety, he had. He was telling me these symptoms through the wall.

WARNER: I should tell you that Dr. Adan and Mohamed were actually friends before prison.

ABOKOR: Yeah, yeah.

WARNER: The doctor was the director of the public hospital, the one who'd called him up and asked him for donations. He did not ask Mohamed to write that letter complaining about the hospital conditions.

ABOKOR: ...Because there were no press allowed, no newspapers, no free press. And that's the moment the government decided that they should do something about us.

WARNER: But if the doctor blamed Mohamed for writing the letter that got them both thrown in prison, he didn't show it. Every time that Mohamed knocked, whatever the hour, the doctor would knock back.

ABOKOR: He used to have these nightmares. So he jumps, he has a nightmare, and then he knocks on the wall again. So I have to wake up and then, again, start conversation, you know, so that he can fall asleep again, just like a baby - you know, taking a baby to bed and making you fall asleep, you know?

WARNER: If Dr. Adan seems fairly unsentimental about some of the more dramatic aspects of Mohamed's life...

ABOKOR: ...Just like a baby, you know...

WARNER: ...It's partly that these two men are such different personalities. While Mohamed described that nighttime arrest as a moment of shock and terror, Dr. Adan seems to have met those same secret police with a bag packed and ready for prison - a bag of clothes, and lots and lots of books.

Why books?

ABOKOR: Books is the best friend in a prison.

WARNER: But then, when you got to the prison, it was taken away. The bag...

ABOKOR: Everything was taken away. Even our glasses were taken away, and so...

WARNER: Tell me about the day you learned the language - or learned the knocking language.

ABOKOR: Well, it was the most exciting day in our life. It was the most exciting, and we couldn't sleep. We started practicing it the whole day and the whole night. And if there is a joke and somebody laughs, everybody starts knocking on the wall and asking that friend, what's the joke about? And then that guy starts sending the message, the joke. And it goes from one cell...

WARNER: It could take an hour to send a tiny joke from one cell, to the next cell to the next. There were eight of them in this prison.

ABOKOR: The guards - of course, they don't know that we are knocking on the wall because they can't hear. And then when they see us all laughing, they just say, oh, these guys are also losing their sanity.

WARNER: Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall, Mohamed really was worried that his mind was slipping.

MOHAMED: I was frightened of going to a certain area in my mind when I would commit suicide without knowing, without wanting to.

WARNER: Was it almost like the fear of going crazy was making you crazy?

MOHAMED: Yes, yes, the fear was, you know - you could imagine people who were crazy. And you could imagine that maybe going crazy was the point of no return, so you are frightened of that.

WARNER: While the doctor, on his side of the wall...

ABOKOR: And I was trying to help counsel him and explain to him through the wall that he's not going to go mad and that he's not going to die. But you can't counsel a person through a wall.

WARNER: Months go by - then a whole year. Finally, it's two years into their prison sentence, and something happens. Dr. Adan is summoned to the office of the warden to get a change of clothes.

ABOKOR: The room was empty, and there was a bench, and they ask you to sit on the bench. And then he asked one of the guards to go and bring your bag.

WARNER: Just the whole bag with all your clothes, your books, everything?

ABOKOR: Yeah. And then he - you open that bag, and then he tells you to choose something in here to wear. And you don't choose anything else.

WARNER: He says don't choose anything else.

ABOKOR: No, that was the regulations.

WARNER: The doctor's getting his first change of clothes since he arrived in prison.

And so then you showed back two years later to choose your next T-shirt.


WARNER: But then the doctor turns to the warden. He looks him right in the eye.

ABOKOR: Can I have one book, I said. That's all. Even I did not expect that he would agree to give me. So I just tried, you know? And he said, yes, you can. Choose one of your books. So then I started thinking of the biggest I can take with me.

WARNER: A few minutes later, the doctor is walking back to his cell with the fattest book in his bag under his arm. You can picture him fantasizing about just getting to lie down and read. But when he returned to his cell, there's that sound...


WARNER: ...At the wall.

ABOKOR: It occurred to me the thought that, why don't I read this book for him through the wall and distract the negative thoughts?

WARNER: Meanwhile, Mohamed, on his side of the wall, hears a new set of taps.

ABOKOR: I have a book, a book. And I'll read it to you chapter by chapter.


ABOKOR: It's "Anna Karenina."

WARNER: "Anna Karenina."

"Anna Karenina," the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy published in 1878. The English translation that they're using is 800 pages, 350,000 words, nearly 2 million letters, each letter a set of taps. So the doctor prepares himself.

ABOKOR: So just thought - I took a piece of my bed sheet, and I put it around my wrist.

WARNER: Like he's prepping for a medical procedure, wrapping the sheet around his wrist and knuckle.

ABOKOR: Because it will damage my wrist if I continue like that. So then I started knocking. And he started listening.

ELIF BATUMAN: (Reading) All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Everything was in confusion in the Oblonksys house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying...

WARNER: What that book did to Mohamed's mind, when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. The day that the novel "Anna Karenina" entered their lives marked a new phase for Mohamed and the doctor. Each morning, Dr. Adan would carefully wrap his hand and open the novel. Mohamed, on his side of the wall, would listen.

BATUMAN: (Reading) When he was dressed, Stepan Arkadyevich sprinkled some scent on himself...

MOHAMED: It was only knocking, but it brought the whole story to me.

BATUMAN: (Reading)... Cigarette, pocketbook, matches and watch with its double chain and seals. And, shaking out his handkerchief, feeling himself clean, fragrant, healthy and physically at ease in spite of its unhappiness, he walked with a slight swing on each leg into the dining room, where coffee was already waiting...

WARNER: If it's been awhile since you cracked open "Anna Karenina," here's what you need to know. Anna is a noblewoman in 19th century Russia. She's married to a man much older than herself. She goes to a ball in a black velvet dress lined with lace and falls in love with a soldier, Count Vronsky. He's kind of a rich boy, careless in love. Mohamed immediately hates him.

MOHAMED: He's also in uniform. And I was hating anything in uniform.

WARNER: (Laughter).

MOHAMED: Actually, this is very important, really. Really, I felt that.

WARNER: Right. He's in the military, and you were in a military prison.

MOHAMED: Yeah, it's a military prison. Definitely.

WARNER: So you really didn't like Vronsky.

MOHAMED: No (laughter).

WARNER: So, anyway, the soldier Vronsky - he steals Anna's heart. He gets her pregnant even though she's still married to the other guy. And then Anna makes a choice that really changes everything because, instead of having a secret affair like all the others in her social set, she makes her love public. She leaves her husband. And society - Russian nobility - cut her off. They isolate her. Vronsky is a man, so he's pretty much able to go on with his life as before. But Anna is realizing how alone she is. She's staying in her room, wondering what Vronsky's up to when he's not with her.


WARNER: Just the same as Mohamed was wondering what his wife was doing outside the prison walls. Mohamed reads me this one sentence from the book.

MOHAMED: (Reading) If he loved her - sorry - (reading) if he loved her, he would understand all the difficulties of her situation, and he would rescue her from it.

WARNER: If he loved her, he would rescue her from her situation. It's interesting because Anna is trapped by views about women and maybe desire and all - but you are trapped by real walls.

MOHAMED: Real walls, yeah.

WARNER: He says it didn't matter how different their lives seemed on the outside. Inside...

MOHAMED: She was suffering all the time.

WARNER: He felt exactly like Anna. He also was jealous - crazily jealous - and also hating himself for being jealous. And all of a sudden, he meets this fictional character who is suffering in exactly the same way. And this suffering is driving her into a state that Mohamed most feared for himself.

MOHAMED: Going to a certain area in my mind when I would commit suicide without knowing, without wanting to.

WARNER: So it's now 750 pages into the book. And two months have passed since the doctor first started tapping the book letter by letter. Anna and Vronsky are now living in Moscow. And it's summer, so it's hot and suffocating. And on this particular day, Vronsky is off visiting his mom, which Anna hates because she thinks she's trying to set him up with a young princess. And Anna's in this state of mind where she both thinks that she's a burden to Vronsky, and she thinks he'd be better off without her. But, also, she wants him to suffer her absence the way she's suffering. It's in this state that Anna finds herself walking down a train platform. The train is hurtling down the tracks. And this thought possesses her.


BATUMAN: (Reading) She knew what she had to do. With a rapid, light step, she went down the steps that led from the tank to the rails and stopped quite near the approaching train.

WARNER: As Mohamed is listening to this, and he's thinking about what she's about to do...

MOHAMED: I really cried. I felt for her.

WARNER: But he realizes his tears are not just for Anna.

MOHAMED: That's when I remembered my wife...

WARNER: He's remembering Ismahan, his wife.

MOHAMED: ...And how much she's suffering. And, yes, the book's the one that brought me back to think about her a lot.

WARNER: And he finds himself asking the question that, in two years in prison, he has not asked himself before.

MOHAMED: Did I do well in those few months we were together?

WARNER: Had he been a good husband?

MOHAMED: Yeah. Did I treat her as submissive?

WARNER: And instead of thinking she's left him and also hating himself for thinking that she's left him, he's thinking, why did he take himself away from her by writing that stupid newsletter?

MOHAMED: Maybe we could have done it in a different way.

WARNER: That letter that got them all thrown in prison...

MOHAMED: Maybe you could have talked to them.

WARNER: And putting himself in his wife's shoes like that kind of took him out of his own misery. He could think a thought like...

MOHAMED: She suffered worse than me because I was only in prison. But she was in the outside world.

WARNER: He goes from self-pity to pity for her.

BATUMAN: Oh, I think that's related to the book. Tolstoy is actually famous for that. That's, like, his magic, crazy talent.

WARNER: Can you say more about that magic, crazy talent 'cause, like, when I was rereading it...

I told Elif Batuman about Mohamed's story. You've heard her reading the Tolstoy passages for us. She's also a writer, novelist herself and totally obsessed with "Anna Karenina."

BATUMAN: I like it a lot (laughter).

WARNER: When I told her about Mohamed's experience, she had this idea about why that book in particular might have helped Mohamed make this mental leap from hating his wife to imagining everything through her eyes.

BATUMAN: Tolstoy gives a lot of weight to all of the characters - like, even to just, like, a newlywed young girl. You spend a lot of time in her thoughts. And there's, like, a scene where she's trying to eat a mushroom on a plate, and it keeps slipping from under her fork.

MOHAMED: (Reading) Trying in vain to spear a disobedient, slippery mushroom with her fork and shaking the lace through which her arm showed white.

BATUMAN: It's a book that takes the subjectivity of young women seriously - and not just young women - everyone. The servants and the dog. There's a hunting scene in this that actually goes to the perspective of the dog. And everything just seems so true. You read that, and you're like, that's definitely what that dog was thinking.

WARNER: And so, she says, the experience of reading Tolstoy is the experience of being constantly confronted with...

BATUMAN: How differently the same thing can look from a slightly different perspective. Like, he's just - he never gets bored of showing that.

WARNER: And in the book, the characters themselves actually...

BATUMAN: Judge each other and then are able to expand that and to see each other a little bit more generously.

WARNER: That's what Elif thinks that Tolstoy's book gave to Mohamed.

MOHAMED: It definitely helped. Definitely. Definitely. In a place like that prison, people become very selfish. You think, everybody has forgotten about me - at the beginning - forgotten about me. So - and nobody cares about me - like that. But when you think about other people's situation, then you understand. It helped me survive. It helped me even sleep better.

WARNER: Tolstoy actually had one more role to play in Mohamed's life. Eight years after his arrest, the Somali political winds had shifted, and the dictator was trying to appease his enemies. Mohamed and the others were suddenly released. He discovered his region of Somalia was flattened by civil war.

But Mohamed also discovered something else. His wife, Ismahan - she was still his wife. She had not given up on him. And she had suffered in his absence. Working at the state bank, she'd been pressured by her boss to divorce the traitor Mohamed. When she refused, she was relocated. And by the time Mohamed was released, she was living in a refugee camp in Germany. She couldn't even make it back to Somalia to see him.

MOHAMED: So I waited another - that was another 10 months, I think, to see each other.

WARNER: Finally, they figure out a way that they can reunite in a neighboring country. And though it's been almost a decade since they've seen each other, you recognized her immediately from a distance. And as they drew closer, Ismahan opens her arms to give her husband a hug. And he reaches out. And all that he could do in that moment is shake her hand.

MOHAMED: Yeah. I did not feel as - I felt - even in prison, I was feeling so much in love with her. And yet when we met, it wasn't the same.

WARNER: She was like a...

MOHAMED: You know, stranger - something like that.


MOHAMED: I mean, I was asking myself, why are you not as in love with her as before? In the prison, in a way, you are not living. You are still inside yourself. You are not - you have to open. And Tolstoy was part - pretty much part of that.

BATUMAN: (Reading) He was overcome by a momentary doubt of the possibility of setting up that new life he had dreamed of on the way.

WARNER: This is where the book came back to him. It wasn't Anna he was thinking of but another character named Levin. He's also in love, also a person of strong emotions. And Levin, just like Mohamed in that moment with his wife, is wracked by self-doubt.

BATUMAN: (Reading) Doubts and eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve and failures and then eternal expectation of the happiness that is...

WARNER: It's not really until the end of the book that Levin learns to stand outside himself, to put his own uncertainty in perspective. And Mohamed - he had to learn how to do the same thing.

MOHAMED: We had to learn to love each other again. And probably, Tolstoy had a lot to do with it.

WARNER: You think Tolstoy helped you fall in love again?

MOHAMED: I mean, the feeling of love - you know, it wasn't so easy to become in love again. Ismahan has been experiencing, and she was living her real life. It's difficult for people to live with someone who has been in solitary confinement for so long. I was probably very difficult to live with at that particular time.

WARNER: And you're saying that knowing that you were hard to live with - knowing...

MOHAMED: Yes. Yes. It made it easier for us to talk to each other, to live, to learn to live with each other.

WARNER: Because you knew that...

MOHAMED: Yes, yes, yes.

WARNER: ...Your heart was not quite working yet.



MOHAMED: I should build a monument for that book (laughter).


WARNER: Hey, one last thing. There is someone else to give credit to here besides the great Russian author. Every detail that Tolstoy wrote into that book, every perspective shift that helped Mohamed escape his prison cell - all those sentences had to be tapped out on a concrete wall by a friend.

ABOKOR: I could imagine him, you know, getting tired because he was working hard, really working hard. So I could imagine him getting tired and all that.

WARNER: Why was he doing it?

ABOKOR: Just to make me - for me, yeah. He was doing it for me.

WARNER: Dr. Adan said that Mohamed was his last patient. After their release, he was just too out of practice to return to medicine. And after prison, the doctor did try to read the novel, "Anna Karenina," again.

ABOKOR: I went to push open - when I tried to read, I couldn't read it.

WARNER: Too many bad memories. But he knew someone who could use it.

ABOKOR: Somebody - a friend who was imprisoned here in Somalia, a journalist, a friend. And I took the book to him. And I told him that the best thing - the best present - you can have in a prison is a book.


WARNER: This episode was edited by Marianne McCune, produced by Jess Jiang in collaboration with the team at Radiolab. Thank you to Elizabeth Senja Spackman, who introduced me to Dr. Adan. She interviewed him at the Hargeysa International Book Fair in Somaliland. Editorial help from Soren Wheeler, Jacob Goldstein, Noel King, Nick Fountain, Robert Smith, Bryant Urstadt, Lu Olkowski and Sana Krasikov.

Elif Batuman is the author of "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them." Her new novel is "The Idiot." Thank you to ROUGH TRANSLATION advisers Neal Carruth, Anya Grundmann, Mathilde Piard and Alex Goldmark. Mary Glendinning and Greta Pittenger fact-checked this episode.

We would love to hear from you, what you thought of the episode. Or tell us your own perspective-shifting travel story. We're on Twitter at @Roughly. Or visit our Facebook page, ROUGH TRANSLATION. You can find previous episodes at or wherever you get your podcasts. Our theme music is by John Ellis - more music from Blue Dot Sessions. And Dylan Keith composed additional music for this episode. I'm Gregory Warner, back next week with another ROUGH TRANSLATION.


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