Michael Totten

The Bin Ladens of the Balkans, Part II

I met Shpetim Mahmudi at a covered outdoor cafe on a cold day in late spring in the ethnic Albanian region of Macedonia. Black clouds hung low over the city of Tetovo. Fat rain drops pelted the sidewalk and the awning over my head as I shivered in my light black leather jacket. “Let’s go inside,” he said, “where it’s warmer and drier.” We found a table and ordered coffee. He leaned in close to whisper when the waiter stepped out of earshot. “We are really in trouble here,” he said. “We are really in trouble with the Wahhabis.”
After the Kosovo War ended in 1999, well-heeled Gulf Arabs with Saudi money moved in to rebuild mosques destroyed by Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces. They’re still there trying to impose a stern Wahhabi interpretation of Islam on indigenous Europeans, and they’re having an awfully difficult time getting much traction. Almost everyone in Kosovo despises these people. They are known as the Binladensa, the people of Osama bin Laden.
Things are different in next-door Macedonia. I had driven two hours from Kosovo’s capital Prishtina through beautifully sculpted mountains and forest to Tetovo near the Kosovo and Albanian borders.
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The Kosovo side of the Kosovo-Macedonia border
What I saw there was startling.
Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country. Macedonia isn’t. Only a third of Macedonia’s people are Muslims. Most Muslims in both countries are ethnic Albanians, but the difference between the two came like a shock — and not in the way you might expect. Aside from the mosque minarets, Kosovo doesn’t look or feel like a Muslim country at all. Its culture and politics are thoroughly secular, and its believers are not demonstrative about their religion. A huge number of people in Tetovo, though, looked like they had been airlifted in from the Middle East.
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I spent three weeks in Kosovo and saw no more than one or two women each day wearing a hijab — an Islamic headscarf — over their hair.
Albanians in Kosovo
In Macedonia I saw dozens wearing a hijab in just ten minutes while driving to the cafe to meet Shpetim Mahmudi. I even saw a handful of women wearing an all-enveloping black abaya — the closest thing the Arab world has to a burkha.
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An Albanian woman Tetovo, Macedonia
I never once saw one of those in Kosovo, not even in villages. As soon as I crossed the border into Macedonia, I felt like I had been whisked through a hole in the dimension from southeastern Europe to somewhere in Arabia.
Hijabs aren’t strictly Islamic. There are Muslim countries all over the world where few women wear them. It’s a cultural import from the Arab world. There is nothing wrong with wearing a hijab by choice (they are required by law in Iran), and it would be wrong to assume a woman or her family are Islamist extremists based on their head gear, but I was still startled to see so many in Macedonia. Albanian women do not traditionally wear them. It was obvious that soft-imperial Arab “missionaries” from the Gulf are having a much more profound effect on the ground in Macedonia than in Kosovo.
Shpetim Mahmudi teaches at the University of Tetovo and belongs to “the Bektashi order of Sufi mystics”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bektashi. The Bektashis are part of a distinct branch of Shia Islam, and many self-identify as the most liberal on Earth. These are the last people in the Islamic world who will join any kind of jihad. They drink alcohol, for instance, and they are not obligated to pray five times every day in a mosque. Bektashi women don’t wear oppressive clothing, and their feelings of openness toward people of other faiths is genuine. Naturally they are detested by Wahhabis and other radical Sunnis as much as they would be if they were pagans or Jews.
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Shpetim Mahmudi
“We don’t pray 5 times a day like the Sunnis,” Mahmudi said. “We are similar to Ismailis, and we’re treated badly in Turkey because we don’t go to the mosque. Here in Macedonia, the Sunnis don’t treat us as Muslims. They say this sometimes. They want to be the only one representing the entire community, and they say we should come under their umbrella.”
Bektashi Sufis are no less Islamic than the Wahhabis. They are arguably even more so. Their order is hundreds of years older, after all. But they aren’t chauvinists about their religion, and they don’t spend billions in petrodollars on a crusade to convert the planet.
“We have nothing to do with the Arab ways,” he said, “but now we’re dressing like them. This is not nice for us. We are close to Americans, not the Middle East. We don’t have that in Albania.”
“Is it getting better or worse here?” I said.
“It was worse ten years ago,” he said. “But it has always been worse in Macedonia. There have always been more fundamentalists here. Macedonia is poorer and less educated. Now it is getting better. But it is changing slowly.”
It’s hard to believe it was worse ten years ago. The difference between the Albanian region of Macedonia and the Albanian regions of every other place — Albania proper, Kosovo, and Montenegro — amazed me. Also, there were no Wahhabis in Macedonia or anywhere else in Yugoslavia during the communist era. The Macedonian Muslim community appears to be fracturing. If a majority of Albanian-Macedonian Muslims are becoming more secular and modern at the same time a minority is becoming more radical — watch out.
Few outsiders know it, but Macedonia is the most recent country in the former Yugoslavia that experienced war. It erupted in 2001, and it was the only conflict in the former Yugoslavia where Serbian nationalists weren’t among the combatants. Albanian separatists fought and lost a struggle for independence against the Macedonian state. They did not face anything like the brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign Albanians suffered in Kosovo and Bosniaks suffered in Bosnia. Casualties were relatively low on both sides, and the international community shrugged.
I did not visit Macedonia’s capital Skopje, but the portion of the country I did see seemed the most backward of the former republics of Yugoslavia. Economic development in the Albanian region, at least, is at least as sluggish as in stagnating Kosovo, if not more so. I saw many old wheezing Yugos on the roads, for instance, and I didn’t notice any, not a single one, anywhere else on my trip through seven Balkan countries. Macedonia was not a place I wanted to stick around long. I later drove through the area again with a car full of Kosovars on a trip to Tirana, Albania, and one of my traveling companions said something that didn’t surprise me.
“There are no young people left in this village,” she said as we passed through a small town near the Albanian border. “Most of them moved to America. They will never be back.”
“How much power do the Wahhabis have here?” I said to Mahmudi as we sipped our coffee in the café.
“They control seven mosques in Tetovo,” he said.
“Out of how many?” I said.
“There are 40 mosques here total,” he said. “Many people don’t like them.”
He was obviously afraid of them, or at least very cautious. He spoke so quietly when I asked him about the Wahhabis that using my voice recorder for the interview was impossible. I had to take notes by hand. If we spoke about anything other than the Wahhabi infiltration of Macedonia he spoke at a normal volume and didn’t mind if others heard what he said. I felt like I was interviewing a dissident in a total-surveillance police state. No one anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia — not in Serbia, not in Bosnia, and not in Kosovo — whispered like this when we talked about religion or politics. It seems the Wahhabis have successfully transformed this portion of Macedonia into what former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls a “fear society”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Town_square_test.
“Why is it so much worse here than in Kosova?” I said. “It feels oppressive.”
“It’s different in Kosova,” he said, “thanks to America and NATO. If Kosova cooperated with Muslim countries instead, it would be different. Americans are bringing their culture to Kosova and Albania, but not to Macedonia.”
Arabs are bringing their culture to Macedonia. And the Macedonian government — astonishingly — is helping them do it.
Mahmudi’s place of Sufi worship — his tekke — is under assault by radical Sunnis who have seized most of the sprawling ancient Ottoman compound by force, converted portions of it for their own use, and desecrated its graves and its shrines. He took me there in my rented car, but we first paid a visit to the Painted Mosque.
We parked and walked in the rain. I zipped my camera inside my jacket to keep it dry.
“What do ethnic Macedonians thinks of Americans?” I said. Ethnic Macedonians are Slavic Orthodox Christians who once belonged to Yugoslavia, but they are not Serbs. They speak their own language, which is similar to Bulgarian, and they have their own cultural traditions.
“They burned American flags in Skopje recently,” he said. “They feel close to Serbia. But George Bush recognized Macedonia’s new name, so they are more pro-American now. The name is important here. I can understand.”
Most people from outside Greece and Macedonia couldn’t care less about a parochial issue like the name of the country, but locally it’s a big deal. Much of ancient Macedonia lies inside the borders of Greece. The Greeks protested its simple constitutional name, so the country was all but forced to provisionally name itself The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia instead of simply the Republic of Macedonia, or Macedonia. Controversy over whether “The Former Yugoslav Republic of” must remain part of its name still inflames nationalists in both countries.
The ancient Painted Mosque built by the Ottoman Turks in 1459 is the most beautiful small mosque I’ve ever seen.
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The Painted Mosque
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The front door of the Painted Mosque
“The fundamentalists hate painting,” he said, “but they have to deal with this.”
The mosque dates back to the 15th Century, but Mahmudi told me the colors were touched up again in the 18th. “They say the new colors are not as good as the originals,” he said.
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A painted wall inside the Painted Mosque
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Inside the Painted Mosque
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Looking out a window from inside the Painted Mosque
It’s an architectural wonder no matter how muted the colors may be. I found myself wishing I could visit an entire city built with this amount of aesthetically pleasing detail. The Binladensa who despise it are philistines who would destroy everything beautiful and civilized in this world if they could.
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And they are trying. They’ve already wrecked parts of Mahmudi’s tekke.
We parked inside the compound and proceeded with caution. The Sufis only control parts of it now. Wahhabi-inspired Sunnis seized the rest of it.
“You see that?” he said and gestured to a building with opaque glass windows. “They took it from us and turned it into a classroom for their propaganda. An Egyptian woman teaches Albanian women in Arabic even though no one speaks Arabic here. Don’t let anyone see you take a picture of it.”
There weren’t many people around. We both made sure no one was looking. Then I snapped a quick picture and covered my camera again with my jacket.
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One of the Sufi buildings at the tekke forcibly seized by radical Sunnis
“They attacked us again on the 5th of May,” he said. “They ripped down our Bektashi flag. They broke the spindles on the shrine here and stole the donation box. And they threatened the dervish.”
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The Bektashi flag (left) and the Albanian flag (right) at Tetovo’s Sufi tekke
Dervish Abdulmytalib Beqiri is in charge of the tekke — or at least the parts that haven’t been forcibly taken over.
Mahmudi introduced me to him inside one of the few remaining buildings the Sufis control. The three of us sat down to talk over coffee.
“Welcome to our tekke,” Dervish Beqiri said in Albanian. Mahmudi translated. “Thank you very much for your time.”
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Dervish Abdulmytalib Beqiri
“Thank you for letting me visit,” I said.
“Americans are most welcome here,” he said.
“I see you have an American flag,” I said. You won’t find many of those in Islamic holy sites in the Arab world.
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“Yes,” Dervish Beqiri said. “We light up the flag with a candle at night. Do you know what those slots are for?” He meant the slot where the flag and candle were perched.
I had an idea.
“What are they for?” I said.
“They are for protecting the tekke,” he said. “We used to fire guns through those slots.”
The Bektashi Sufis participated in various resistance movements against the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
“Bektashis here always fought for the Albanian cause,” Dervish Beqiri. “Some clerics were at one tekke fighting the Turks, and the Turks came and occupied it. Inside were some non-Bektashis, some Orthodox Christians, and they were hidden in the tekke. The baba was very well-known and he took these Christians, put dervish clothes on them, and introduced them to the Turks as Dervish Mark and Dervish Michael, the same names, just with Dervish added. So this baba covered them and saved the lives of Christian people. Both the Christians and Muslims were fighting for the Albanian cause. The Bektashis will fight against occupation. For freedom. For schools. For educating people. Equality and tolerance are our values.”
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A Jewish gravestone chisled in Hebrew at the Sufi tekke
“When Osama Bin Laden attacked the two towers,” he continued, “the first cleric leader in the world who judged this crucial attack as non-human was the world Bektashi father at the headquarters in Tirana. He publicly denounced this attack. He even went to the Embassy of the U.S. to present his judgment.”
“How long have you had problems with the Wahhabis here?” I said.
“Serious trouble started three years ago when they broke gravestones,” he said. “They didn’t respect our saints. They also broke pictures of Imam Ali on the walls, and of the world head of the Bektashis. They cut the pictures with knives. They think we are too close to Christianity, in part because of the pictures and candles.” The Wahhabis hate candles. “Then the Sunnis came in and occupied the tekke. They said This is Muslim territory.
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A painting of Ali. Shia Muslims, including Bektashi Sufis, believe his descendents are the rightful successors of Mohammad.
Of course the tekke was “Muslim territory” already. Bektashis are Muslims. But Sufis are often thought of as heretics and non-Muslim infidels by reactionary Sunnis.
“Look how they are manipulating people,” he said. “They want to convert the tekke into a woman’s madrassa. They want to move their administration here.”
“They are influenced by Arabs?” I said. It wasn’t really a question.
“Yes,” he said. “They are. And our government is weak. Arabs can manipulate us because our government is neglectful.”
The Macedonian government is worse than neglectful, actually. The state has formed an alliance of sorts with the Wahhabis, which is an extraordinary thing for a Christian-dominated government to do in a country where a third of the population are Muslims.
“Why would the government do this?” I said.
“It is convenient for the government because they can point at Albanians and call us terrorists,” he said.
But there is a lot more to it than that, and it strangely involves the Serbs and the Greeks who don’t recognize the autonomy of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. It’s a complicated mess. Fortunately we were able to speak in private and I could use my voice recorder again.
“The Macedonian church has a problem with their Pope,” Mahmudi explained. “This Pope, Jovan Vranishkovski, is under Serbian and Greek influence. He is paid by the Serbs. Because he is preaching at his church in Serbian. The Macedonian church is not recognized by the Serbs or the Greeks.”
“The Macedonian Orthodox Church is against preaching in Serbian in Macedonian territory,” he later added.
“Are the Greeks and the Serbs working together on this?” I said.
“Oh yes,” he said. “Because the Serbian church is supporting the Greek church against recognizing the Macedonian church as independent. The Greek church can recognize the Macedonian church as independent, but not under this name. They are not recognizing the name of the state and they are not recognizing the language, plus they are not recognizing the church. The Muslim community is supporting the Orthodox church against this Pope, and saying You should be independent, and this Pope should have his own church in Macedonia. The Muslim community is supporting the Orthodox church, so the Orthodox church is supporting the Muslim community against us. And the Macedonian government is under the influence of the Orthodox church. Plus, this political party — the national political party — they are investing a lot of money in the church building process, mosques also, etc. So you see, this government is sacrificing Bektashism because of the problem of the Orthodox Church with the Pope.”
Got that? The Balkans wouldn’t be the Balkans without this kind of convoluted political intrigue. It really is like the Middle East when it comes to this stuff.
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This building was lightly damaged in Macedonia’s civil war in 2001
“During the conflict of 2001,” Dervish Beqiri said “some of our buildings were damaged in the fighting. We are a minority.”
“Who was doing the fighting?” I said.
“Macedonians and Albanians were doing the fighting,” he said.
“Were Bektashis involved?” I said.
“As a community, no,” he said, “but individually there may have been some involved. We are always against fighting. We are for finding peaceful solutions. In the past, Bektashis were involved in making wars, but it was for the Albanian cause, mainly against the Ottomans, and for making an independent Albania. We were very deeply involved in this. As Bektashis we are not against the state, and the state rules wherever we are. For example, Bektashis are in 31countries. Greek Bektashis are fighting for the cause of Greece, Albanian Bektashis for the Albanian cause. We respect the rule of the state no matter where we are. Bektashis in America will fight if America is involved in a war to protect America and American rules.”
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Ornate Ottoman-era architecture at the Bektashi tekke. Wahhabis despise this kind of artistic construction.
“Someone in Kosova was recently arrested for smuggling weapons into Macedonia,” I said. “Who in this region is armed?”
“I don’t know where these guns were going,” Mahmudi said.
“A lot of people around here have guns,” I said. That definitely includes the Wahhabis who often fire weapons even inside the tekke just a few dozen feet from where we were sitting.
“Before the election,” Mahmudi said, “at night you could hear weapons shooting. Just two days ago someone was shooting near here. Someone was shooting from here, inside the tekke. Many times we have reported to the police that people are shooting from inside this part of the tekke at night.”
“They are intimidating you,” I said.
“Mr. Katroshi is a guest here from Tirana,” Mahmudi said, “and he has noticed that the people from outside are not only trying to scare us with weapons, but are also looking at them as enemies and trying to provoke them in any way they can. The Sunnis are looking at the people coming here with an unfriendly eye. Even the guests that used to come here often are now not coming because they are scared. They are always provoked. The only people coming to the tekke are the people who must come, who have something important to do.”
“So they are trying to take the whole thing?” I said.
“They are trying to make us not come here at all,” Dervish Beqiri said. “They are trying to take over everything. It is a cycle of aggression. I was alone when the crucial attack happened. I saw some people speaking Albanian when I went out behind to feed the chickens. They attacked the grave of a saint, they broke the shrine, and they stole the donation box. They also broke the Bektashi flag, the green one that was just next to the Albanian flag. They didn’t touch that one, the national flag, the Albanian flag, they just broke the Bektashi flag. This means the attack was done by Muslim people. If it was Macedonians they would have broken both flags. So Muslims did this, for sure. Also there was a verbal attack after this from the people praying in our place that has been transformed into a kind of mosque.”
“What did they say to you?” I said.
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Sufi gravestones
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The coffins of Sufi saints
“Some are trying to accuse us of doing this to ourselves,” he said. “But Bektashis never do things against their properties. All Bektashis believe in the same graves. We keep them and pray to them. We believe that if we damage a grave God will punish us, so we are very afraid to do this, we would never do this. We keep the saint graves. The Muslims know this, they are trying to provoke us and claim that we have done it to ourselves. But no, really they did it. Plus, I see these Wahhabis around. Usually at night the Wahhabis are coming, sometimes in trousers, sometimes in their clothes, sometimes with the things on their heads and with beards.”
The next building over in the compound had been forcibly converted into a Sunni mosque. Speakers for the muezzin’s call to prayer were bolted to the side of the chimney. During our interview the call to prayer screeched from above. “Allahu Akbar…” the muezzin called. My Bektashi Sufi hosts groaned.
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A chimney forcibly converted into a minarat by radical Sunnis
“Ugh,” Mahmudi said and made a face. “You see what we have to listen to five times a day? This is supposed to be a quiet place for meditation.”
“In the beginning, at night,” Dervish Beqiri said, “when they had full control of the city because of the conflict, the war, they were coming, preaching to the local people, preaching Wahhabism. When they came here, the Wahhabis, with the intent to take full control of the Muslim community, they used these people who had been studying in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. They were using them to put them in some of the mosques, and now they are in control of eight mosques with these people who had been studying in the Arab countries. But they couldn’t succeed in taking full control of the Muslim community. So now they are trying other ways to get influence like preaching to the local people their way of believing, trying to have some control, and even having some ideas of how to transform the tekke into their center. They couldn’t succeed in taking full control of the Muslim community because the Muslim community is not only Macedonian, but it is Kosovar, and from other Balkan countries, and their religion is influenced by the Hanafi Turkish school. It is Hanafism. They are now trying to at least change this tradition from Hanafism into their tradition. They are mainly Wahhabis, Salafi Wahhabis. They are using the fact that the local people are poor and unemployed, they are paying them to convert to Wahhabism. Also they are making people pray five times a day.”
“How much are they being paid?” I said.
“We are not sure,” he said, “maybe 200 or 300 dollars or Euros per month. They are paying more to convert women.”
I heard from a number of people in Kosovo that Saudi-funded Wahhabis are also trying to pay people there to attend their mosques and wear Arab clothing. I could not, however, verify whether or not that is true.
“So these are people who have studied in the Arab world and are bringing the ideas back from there,” I said. “Has there been any violence here between the Bektashis and the Sunnis?”
“Recently no,” Dervish Beqiri said, “because we have the support of the American Embassy and also the Albanian political party in government. Once we get support from someone they get angry and try to provoke us. But we stay away, we don’t get involved in violent acts. There have been some attempts at attacks, but small ones. No physical attacks just small attempts. We always escape from such situations. Such a conflict is exactly what they want.”
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A bullet hole in the tekke from Macedonia’s civil war in 2001
I am only aware of small violent incidents in Macedonia since the civil war in 2001, but that isn’t for lack of trying on the part of some people. 17 suspected terrorists were rounded up in this city last year, and just a few days ago they were given a combined total of “192 years in prison”:http://www.b92.net/eng/news/region-article.php?yyyy=2008&mm=07&dd=12&nav_id=51855. One is from Serbia, one is from Kosovo, one is from Albania, and the other 14 are apparently from Macedonia. Lirim Jakupi, the Albanian from Serbia, is nicknamed the “Nazi Commander.” They are allegedly Wahhabis linked to local foundations from Saudi Arabia. They were caught with modern sophisticated weaponry, “including laser-guided anti-aircraft missiles”:http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/07/11/europe/EU-Macedonia-Weapons-Convictions.php.
“In Albania,” Dervish Beqiri said, “the Muslim community is having some problems with these Wahhabis, but these are small problems. The Muslim communities are all against them, which is not the case in Macedonia. In Albania they are always against them. We don’t have that here. The Muslim population of Albania and Kosova is more educated. We have recently a university in Albania, so they are more educated and they don’t get easily involved. The Wahhabis are always trying to get involved, and it is easy for them to get involved in the less well-educated population and the poor population.”
“Is the tension with the Bektashis and the Sunnis only with the Wahhabis?” I said.
“These parts of our buildings are taken by violence from the Sunni community, so in a way we have a problem with the Sunni community, but the basis is the Wahhabism. It is mainly the Wahhabi part of the Muslim community. But also they are using the Wahhabis to realize their goals, so we have a problem with both.”
“So they are working together against you,” I said. “Do they also have problems with each other?”
“Yes,” he said. “They were shooting at each other during the elections for the president of the Muslim communities in Macedonia. The one who was to be chief of the Muslim communities was on the blacklist of America. His name is Zenun Berisha. He was the president of the Skopje branch of the Muslim community, and he pretended to become the president of the Muslim community of Macedonia.. He is on the American blacklist because of his links with foreign extremists. He wanted to be the head, but he didn’t succeed. And they used firearms. They didn’t kill, but they did this with violence.”
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When Mahmudi escorted me back to my car, a woman entered the tekke wearing a tent-like abaya.
“Look at that,” he said. “We never had that. Take a picture, take a picture.”
I took several pictures. I don’t think she saw me. I’ve seen many women dressed like that in the Arab world — especially in ferociously reactionary cities in Iraq like Fallujah — but never anywhere else in the Balkans.
“Please publish these pictues,” he said. “Show the world what is happening here.”
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