Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Linguistics, imperialism, and religious mania: an interview with Lose Miller-Helu

This is the second of my series of interviews with scholars at the ‘Atenisi Institute.

Lose Miller-Helu: I study Tonga’s past, but I am also very concerned with its present. The Tonga of the twenty-first century troubles me.  When I left the country for the first time back in 1968 I had the sense that it was moving forward both economically and intellectually. Tongans were being sent abroad for education and coming back to get jobs in an expanding public service, Nuku’alofa was growing, and in the countryside the copra industry was doing well. Futa Helu and the school he had established at ‘Atenisi were part of that momentum – they were educating Tongans in critical thinking and free discussion, stripping away some of the myths that had attached themselves to the Tongan past, and laying the foundations for a challenge to the hegemony of the monarchy and the nobles. ‘Remittances’ was an unknown word.

Now things are different. An air of lethargy has settled over Tonga. The old dream of economic prosperity, which seemed within reach in the 1960s, is gone, and Tongans seem to have the option of either going abroad in search of better lives or living modestly on money sent home by relatives abroad. The country’s outer islands are becoming more and more remote, as ferry services drop off and young people head to Nuku’alofa, which has become a sort of staging post for emigration abroad. Whole islands may be abandoned to weeds and wild pigs in the near future.

Even the countryside outside Nuku’alofa, on the main island of Tongatapu, is being neglected – drive around the potholed roads and you will see allotment after allotment overgrown with weeds. Nuku’alofa is now home to more than a third of the population of the country, and has become a little nation of its own. You can live here comfortably without ever venturing into the countryside of Tongatapu, let alone visiting the outer islands. Some of the better-off Tongans only ever see Nuku’alofa, with its new cafes and restaurants, and the smooth road running out to the international airport at Fua’amotu.

The only dynamic sector of the Tongan economy is religion. New churches are being built everywhere, while schools decay. Tonga has always been a religious society, but when I returned home a few years ago I was shocked by how pervasive God had become. It seems impossible to stage any public event, or hold even the most modest meeting, without running through some long-winded prayer. Perhaps it is more comforting for Tongans to pray than to think. Church is a place where they can forget the stagnation of the economy, and the fact that far more of their young people live abroad than at home. It’s an escape.

Are you looking at the past of Tonga and Western Polynesia because you want to get insights into how the problems of the present might be solved?

As you know, my PhD is about the influence of ‘Uvea on ancient Tonga. This influence was profound and positive, but it has in some ways been forgotten. That is a great pity.

What made you want to devote years of study to a small and - outside of Western Polynesia - little-known society like ‘Uvea?

‘Uvea came to my attention when I was doing an undergraduate degree in linguistics. I had to study proto-Polynesian, which is a sort of speculative language created by academics interested in the origins of Polynesian words, and I had to examine a tree-like diagram which showed the supposed relationships between the various Polynesian languages. I noticed that Tongan and ‘Uvean had more words in common than any other two Polynesian languages – 86% of the words Tongans use are also used by ‘Uveans.

Despite this apparent affinity, though, the two languages had been consigned to separate subgroups – ‘Uvean was classed as a Samoic Outlier language, while Tongan was lumped together with Niuean as a Tongic tongue. I was curious, and am still curious, about why ‘Uvean and Tongan are separated, when their vocabularies are so similar.

I was aware, even as an undergraduate, that linguistics is a partly political enterprise, in the sense that the work of linguists has been made possible and at times influenced by political events outside the academy. The study of Pacific languages has historically been connected in numerous ways with the colonisation and Christianisation of the region. The earliest vocabulary lists for many Pacific languages were compiled by Western mariners, missionaries, and colonial administrators. These people had to make decisions about matters like orthography, spelling, and punctuation, because the vast majority of Pacific peoples lacked an indigenous system of writing. And the decisions they made were sometimes determined by political interests, or incompetence, or ignorance. In many cases, though, we seem to be stuck with their decisions. 
 Let me give you an example of what I mean. At various times I have seen the separation of Tongan and ‘Uvean justified by the supposed fact that ‘Uveans, unlike Tongans, do not use glottal stops when they speak. But when I examine ‘Uvean speech patterns closely I can see that the glottal stop is a part of their language. ‘Uvean manuscripts do not traditionally feature glottal stops, but that is simply a matter of transcription – it has nothing to do with the way ‘Uveans speak.

Part of the trouble with the separation of the ‘Uvean and the Tongan languages is that it creates a certain attitude amongst those who study the past. We now know, thanks to the achievements of historical linguistics and the use of linguistics by archaeologists and other scholars of ancient history, that the diffusion of languages can be linked to the diffusion of cultures. If two peoples have a very similar language, then it is likely they have, at some point in the past, had very close economic, social, and political relations. The similar vocabularies of Tongan and ‘Uvean point to close contact between the societies in the past. But linguistics has obscured this relationship by consigning the languages to separate groups. As a result, there is a paucity of research into the influence of ‘Uvean culture on Tonga. And I would argue that it’s impossible to understand Tonga’s history and culture without understanding ‘Uvea.

Conversely, there seems to have been relatively little contact between Tonga and Niue in the pre-Cook era. One of my students is doing a major research project on his village of Kala’au, whose people claim to be partly descended from an ancient Niuean immigrant. Despite this connection, Tevita has been unable to find much evidence, either in the academic literature or in local oral tradition, of ongoing contact between Niue and Tonga –

Relatively few Tongans talk of family connections with Niue, whereas many have links with ‘Uvea. And of course Tongan oral history overflows with references to ‘Uvea – there is the famous story, for example, about the great langi stones which sit on the graves of the Tongan kings in the ancient capital of Mu’a being brought hundreds of miles across the ocean from ‘Uvea. On ‘Uvea itself locals point out various stone monuments and attribute them to Tongan invaders. Some of Tonga’s most famous dances, like the me’etupaki, or paddle dance, have been linked to ‘Uvea by scholars like my uncle Futa Helu.

Tonga is famous for having built an empire hundreds of years ago in this part of the Pacific. Many Tongans are proud of their imperial history –

I was watching telly the other night and saw Jimmy Da Great, a Nuku’alofa rapper, performing a song called ‘Island Conqueror’, a song which seemed – I couldn’t make out all the words – to celebrate the ancient empire using the language of gangsta rap. And there’s a popular clothing label in Auckland called Tongan Empire

But imperial power does not equal cultural power. I am convinced that ‘Uvea was a major cultural power in the Pacific, even if it was colonised by its larger Tongan neighbour. Tonga imported more than stones from ‘Uvea – we took dances, songs, ideas –

Is there an analogy with ancient Rome, which borrowed extensively from the culture of Greece even as it conquered much of Europe? The Roman elite may have had the greatest empire the world had ever known, but they made sure their kids had Greek tutors…

Another analogy is America in the twentieth century. Even though they usurped Britain as the world’s superpower, the Americans – the rich and powerful Americans especially - still regarded the British as culturally superior, and aped them…

What made ‘Uvea so special?

I think it was a very advanced society. The ‘Uveans cultivated their lands skilfully, ran their affairs wisely, traded with very distant peoples, like the Hawaiians, and created beautiful dances like the me’etupaki. Even their weapons were advanced.
‘Uvea had a relatively decentralised and meritocratic political system. Although genealogy played an important role in who became a leader, competence was also required. A chief who had the bloodline but not the skills to lead would not last long in power. And a chief who usurped a rival using illegitimate means, like treachery or unjustified violence, would also often face popular opposition. I believe that the influence of ‘Uvea’s relatively egalitarian and meritocratic society helped keep imperial Tonga politically stable in the fifteenth century. But this aspect of our history has been forgotten. Today Tongans - conservative Tongans, anyway - assume that anyone with the proper bloodline is fit to be king. And they think that their views are traditional. They have forgotten the test of competence which once applied. But a society which relies blindly on bloodlines, and which does not respect merit, is a society headed for disaster.

‘Opeti Taliai, Phyliss Herda, and Niel Gunson have warned about the dangers of assuming there is only one narrative of Tongan history. ‘Opeti accuses Queen Salote of constructing a version of Tongan history which justifies the rule of the present Tu’i Kanokupolu dynasty, Herda thinks Tongan culture has probably meant very different things at different times, and that Tongan ‘traditional’ history is actually an artefact of modernity, and in his fascinating essay ‘Understanding Polynesian Traditional History’ Gunson claims to have discovered a radically different version of the Tongan past in unpublished esoteric texts. Do you feel an affinity with these scholars, with their heretical views of the Tongan past?

Well, ‘Opeti is helping me with my PhD, which as you know is a study of the Talanoa ki ‘Uvea, a prose narrative of ‘Uvean history written down by a Catholic priest near the beginning of the twentieth century. I am trying to glean what I can about the ancient connections between ‘Uvea and Tonga from a close examination of the language of the Talanoa ki ‘Uvea. I want to trace the movement of words and phrases and images and stories between the two societies. I have published a dual Tongan-‘Uvean language edition of the Talanoa ki Uvea, and have also made, with the help of New Zealand scholars, an unpublished English-language translation of the text.

As an old-fashioned historical materialist, who thinks that culture and ideas tend to be related, even if in complex ways, to the economic base of a society, I have to wonder how a small society like ‘Uvea could be the site of such cultural efflorescence. How did the ‘Uveans, who presumably produced an economic surplus much smaller than that of their cousins in Tonga, find the time and resources to create new dances and invent new tools?

I think ‘Uvea’s smallness and vulnerability to foreign attackers forced its people to innovate. They didn’t have the luxury of cultural conservatism. If they wanted to survive they had to embrace trade, adopt and improve technology from other societies, and eliminate leaders who were incompetent.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for present-day Tonga, which is as small in terms of the twenty-first century world as ‘Uvea was in relation to the fifteenth century Pacific!

There certainly is a lesson. The view that Tongan tradition is identical with blind respect for bloodlines and authority is dangerous.

We haven’t talked about the modern influence of France on ‘Uvea, and the consequences of this for interpretations of the Tongan past…

Of course the French colonisation of ‘Uvea is part of the reason for the divide which has opened between our societies...

Last year the Kiwi scholar Rhys Richards published a book which documented the ancient artefacts of the Austral Islands. Richards made the point that the Austral Islands were very closely connected with the societies like Rarotonga and Atiu in pre-colonial times, but that they became isolated from the islands to their north and west after falling under French control. And whereas the Cook Islands have now gotten rid of their New Zealand colonisers, the people of the Australs still live under the tricolour.

The French have little interest in encouraging pan-Pacific feelings amongst their colonial subjects by creating cheap transport links to places like the Cooks and Tonga. They want their subjects to speak French, spend Francs or Euros on French goods, and gravitate, when they need work or education, to Papeete or Noumea or Paris. It is very expensive for the average New Zealander, let alone the average Tongan, to visit ‘Uvea, or an Austral Islands society like Rapa Iti.

In that famous essay ‘Our Sea of Islands’ Epeli Hau’ofa talks about how colonial powers limited the mobility of the Pacific peoples they (mis)governed, and celebrates the mobility of islanders in the post-colonial era. But peoples like the ‘Uveans are still being quarantined by the French. And it disgusted me to see New Zealand and Australia recently trying to perpetuate this quarantine, by blocing with France and urging the United Nations not to put French Polynesia on its list of countries due for decolonisation. I was delighted when the UN General Assembly voted against the colonialists.

I have not been able to afford to visit ‘Uvea.

‘Opeti Taliai was telling me that he has never visited either Fiji or Samoa, despite writing a PhD on the ancient links between those societies and Tonga!

I’d love to go to ‘Uvea, of course, but it’s expensive, and there are bureaucratic hurdles – visitors from Tonga have to register with special representatives of the island who have a little office in downtown Nuku’alofa.

The Australian writer Gerald Murnane has lived almost his whole life in a corner of the state of Victoria, but he has taught himself to speak and read Hungarian, and has set part of one of his novels in Hungary. Murnane told an interviewer that he had no desire to visit Hungary, despite his obvious fascination with the country. To do so, he explained, would ruin the version of Hungary he has constructed in his head. Is there a sense in which your inability to travel to ‘Uvea has made the place especially vivid in your imagination?

I’m not sure! I am travelling in time as well as space, of course, when I do my research, so even if I visited present-day ‘Uvea I might see all of what I am reading about…

You lived for some years in New Zealand, where you worked at various universities and ran an art gallery that sold tapa cloth –

The gallery in Lower Hutt was something of a diversion. I opened it in 2000 because I wanted to create an outlet for a few of the many women who make tapa in Tonga. I wanted to get away from the usual way of marketing tapa – to get away from selling it at flea markets or to tourists – and present it as something complex, something artistic. I wanted it to be appreciated properly.
Most of the tapa I was selling were made in the 1960s and ‘70s, and had both aesthetic appeal and a lot of content – they told stories. Traditionally, tapa have been the way women in Tonga tell stories. When I look at a tapa my mother gave me I can see references to her life – an olive leaf, which symbolises the influence of missionaries on Tonga, Norfolk pines, which used to grow along the waterfront in Nuku’alofa, and so on. Unfortunately much of the depth of reference has disappeared from Tonga tapa today. Tapa are made to sell to tourists. Quality is out, quantity is in.

Did you experience racism in New Zealand?

I noticed it in universities. I saw many Pacific students who were lost at New Zealand universities. The institutions that they had entered were huge, and were indifferent to their needs. The methods of teaching and assessment were alien. Staff and their fellow students knew little about the Pacific Islands, and were unaware that the culture that they considered natural and universal – a white Western culture – was, to Pacific Islanders, unnatural and intimidating.

I think that the culture you’re describing can feel pretty unnatural and intimidating to a lot of palangi! Since I got to Tonga I’ve realised how isolating and emotionally chilly life in Auckland can be…

For me New Zealand universities could be a lonely place…

I recently showed The New Oceania, film maker Shirley Horrocks’ portrait of Albert Wendt, to my Creative Writing students at ‘Atenisi. During one of the interviews shown in the film Wendt reveals that when he arrived at the University of Auckland’s English Department in 1990 the only other Pacific Islander on the staff was the secretary…

I’d search in vain for other brown faces in the white crowds.

Efeso Collins, who was President of the Auckland University Students Association in the late ‘90s, said that a lot of young Pacific Islanders enrolled at universities, ran up big student debts by taking loans to pay their obscene tuition fees and living costs, and eventually dropped out without graduating, because of the sort of experiences you mention. They’d end up with a pile of debt and no degree. I found that terribly sad.

When I became chairperson of the Association of Pacific Staff in 1998 I made sure we addressed the alienation of Pacific students. We lobbied the Tertiary Education Minister of the day, and investigated the ways that universities looked after their students. We found that many institutions didn’t even bother to count the number of Pacific Island and Maori students they had enrolled. Without basic data like this, it was impossible for them to examine the academic performance of Maori and Pacific Island students, and to plan ways to improve this performance.
We were able to force some improvements to the way Pacific Island students were treated. Today data is kept on the number and performance of those students, and far more Pacific Islanders are employed by universities. I take some satisfaction from this. And I don’t mean to criticise the whole of the New Zealand university system – there are some wonderful people working there, including people who have helped me in my research into ‘Uvean and Tongan history.

Why did you return to Tonga?

I wanted to work on a documentary film about Futa Helu and the Helu family, and I couldn’t do this in New Zealand. I did a lot of filming, both at ‘Atenisi and in places like Foa, Futa’s home island in the Ha’apai group, where there is an ancient langi stone and legend I wanted to document. My film will be different to Paul Janman’s Tongan Ark – it’ll be in Tongan, for instance.

It is a measure of Futa Helu’s versatility and complexity that two quite different films can be made about his life!

There were other reasons for me to resettle in Tonga. I like the climate here. I like the compactness of Nuku’alofa – I sometimes found the distances of New Zealand oppressive.

I’ve found that living in Tonga, with its one and seventy or so islands that together would not quite fill Lake Taupo, has altered my perception of New Zealand geography. Suddenly my homeland, which is only the size of the United Kingdom, seems almost continental. When I was back in New Zealand I took a drive with my wife from Auckland down to Hamilton. The modest dairy flats of the central Waikato seemed like some Canadian prairie…

I find it incredible that some people are able to drive from Auckland to Wellington. Even the distances within New Zealand cities seem very large to me. The journey from Lower Hutt to central Wellington was wearying.

How did you respond to the hills and mountains of New Zealand, after living for so long on an island as flat as Tongatapu?

I’d actually lived abroad before I came to New Zealand – but I’d lived in Holland, a place almost as flat as Tongatapu! The mountains of New Zealand are something I now miss.

In his great book Uruora: the groves of life, the late Kiwi environmentalist Geoff Park describes living in Fiji, and taking a somewhat reluctant Tongan co-worker on a drive away from the coast of Vanua Levu into that island’s mountainous central district. Park’s friend, who was used to the flat farmland of Tongatapu, was overpowered by the experience. “Today”, he told Park, “we feed the eyes”. When I heard that the members of the ‘Atenisi Institute’s performing arts group had, without quite getting permission, jumped in a van and gone on a wild road trip during their tour of New Zealand last year, I thought of Park’s story about his drive through the wilds of Fiji. A lot of the ‘Atenisians had never left flat little Tongatapu before – for them, the vast distances and impossibly high mountains of New Zealand must have been as intoxicating as hopi. They were feeding the eyes!

They may have just gotten lost looking for a McDonalds…

You run a couple of very popular courses in the Tongan language here at the ‘Atenisi Institute. Many of your students are prominent members of the palangi expatriate community. Is the Tongan language in good shape in its ancient homeland?

Yes and no. Increasingly in Nuku’alofa you can observe locals speaking a sort of hybrid language – they’ll switch from Tongan to English in the middle of a sentence. English is fashionable. Outside of Nuku’alofa, in the villages of Tongatapu and on the outer islands, the sort of hybrid I’m talking about would be much less common.

Few outsiders realise that Tonga has a second language, Niuafo’ouan, which is spoken in the northernmost and southernmost inhabited islands of the country, but which seems to be in decline –

The language of Niuafo’ou is of great interest to me, because the island of Niuafo’ou sits in the extreme north of Tonga, and is far closer to ‘Uvea than to Tongatapu. The language was brought south after World War Two, when Niuafo’ou’s volcano exploded and some of its people were resettled on ‘Eua Island, at the other end of Tonga. But the Niuan people are a small and marginalised minority in Tonga, and their language is often ridiculed down here in the south. Sadly, many of the Niuans who live down here are too ashamed to speak their language.

There has been too little academic work done on Niuafo’ou. The distinguished Japanese scholar Akilisa Tsukamoto wrote a PhD on the language of Niuafo’ou for the Australian National University – but his thesis was written in his native Japanese! I have tried without success to get someone to translate Tsukamoto’s work. 
[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 





Blogger Richard said...

This is interesting. It is a pity that Socialists or the so-called liberal left seem to think that conventional Marxist theory excludes Oceania or the Pacific to be relatively irrelevant. I recall this was also the case in the late to mid 70s when I knew various of those in either of (all) the Socialist parties.

It was related to a kind of Eurocentric way of regarding the world and a relatively inflexible rhetoric of (Trotskyist, Maoist, and others) and while there were some very enlightened people who took a strong interest in these issues, there were some who were either quite openly (under a thin veneer) racist.

Now days there is little interest (given that the rather superficial Face Book etc dominates things) in Tonga, Samoa and other places NZrs and others should realise are very important to us now. I was not immune to some degree of bias but I tried to offset that.

Nowadays New Zealand (in contrast to my days as a boy and growing up here in the 50s to the 70s) is hugely ethnically diverse and the "real" working class (as in blue blue collar workers) are non-European (mostly).

This discussion should be interesting to those so-called Socialists as it reveals realities about different ways of life, important details of the (negative and positive) influence of politics (Imperialism etc) on culture and language.

Uvea I had not heard of, and this discussion also reveals the way of French Imperialism (often overlooked - or not highlighted perhaps - by Socialists who concentrate on the US and Britain).

I think many of the supposed liberals in the universities are racist underneath while a lot of working class people might express racist views directly and yet actually in many cases despite that actually find a lot more in common than a lot in Universities (many of whom were born with silver spoons in their mouths and other parts of their anatomy...)

This reality is not limited to New Zealand. The whole world is increasingly multiplex in its ethnicities. Eventually we may see nationalism as we know it disappearing as we all become world citizens.

Nationalism as it is seen at its worst as in Britain after this recent killing of a soldier - who was after all effectively a murderer of people of the "other" ethnicities etc - there is the ugly side of nationalism seen as people are turned towards the sensational and simplistic reactions.

It is easy to rave on about poor old Drummer ... whoever he was, while the lives of those the socialists should take a strong interest in are seen as less interesting or irrelevant to the struggle or the stereotyped way of moving via capitalism etc can be seen to be not inevitable (nor paradoxically is capitalism necessarily the main "evil"). Many are simply racist. Others are programmed by experiences (and this is not restricted to Europeans)....

10:48 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Murnane! I read his famous book, and I acquired Inland before I knew much about him. I must read it.

For me it is the same with Mongolia.

Of course it is a kind of "real fantasy". I also have "My England" but I have no illusions that it or any variation of it (with small pockets of "reality") ever did or does or will exist. This I feel is a harmless thing compared to immersion in fantasy.

It is a kind of psychological trick one plays on oneself. Perhaps there is one part of the world one can control, or keep magical. Something like that.

10:56 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks very much for that eloquent first comment Richard: I agree!

Murnane is a strange one. He was actually rated a chance to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011but lost out to Tomas Transtromer.
He is an obsessive man and an obsessive writer, and some critics have suggested he suffers from a form of autism. The Murnane work I've enjoyed most is Invisible but Enduring Lilacs, a book of essays. The Plains wore a little thin.

11:39 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

PS: do you have those Mongolian poems in electronic form? I'd be keen to read them again!

11:40 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

And talking of French imperialism:


I wonder if the vessel in question will be used to quell protests next year, when the people of Kanaky, aka New Caledonia, are determined to gain independence from France (there's a referendum scheduled on the issue, but history suggests France is far from certain to respect the result).

12:07 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I must look out for that book by Murnane. I read The Plains. It is the kind of book I would have written. But then I range from such as Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Lawrence, Woolf to "realists" such as Sillitoe, Barbara Pym...many others, to say Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, Genet, and say (more recently) to Alice Munro, and on to
J. G. Ballard (who I only once knew via that film of his book 'Empire of the Sun' but I read a lot of his stories) and Flannery O'Connor. So Murnane is interesting. I can be rather obsessive in certain areas. I know I have an almost schizophrenic desire to talk about everything and my humour is strange, also I have a tendency to love things collated, and reading lists and things like that. And I tend to write through everything and almost become the thing or idea I am thinking about at one time. Your term "procrustean"; and or protean? I think I connect up (distantly) in that with Geraets...

Talking of writers I am on secret mission to review a new novel by Vaughan Rapatahana in exchange for a step up the hierarchy of an Important Organization whose name we might call 'V' for convenience.

My response? All will be revealed. One clue, I think there is more than meets the eye or the mind to V.R. I have read the book once and will parse it again, or pass through it.

I also have some interesting Pacific (Oceanic?) writers in my collections of short stories from many nations.

Re Tonga - it is sad in many ways that religion dominates Polynesian life, except where it is a gathering and a unifying place or "centre". But more tolerance by the religious people is needed or they will become as crazy a some of these extreme Muslims.

I like (very much) Albert Wendt's novels - and some of his poetry - and he dealt with some of these issues of hierarchy, tradition versus the new and so on. His novels are also worth a look at...

Another clue: VR rather "rips off" Alan Duff and his book is very informed in literary way, it is a trap for those expecting anything. It taps into many genres of NZ (and other international) writing and various ideas (or sometimes simultaneously is satirical of and celebratory of the ideas of) including Existentialism ad Postmodernism...(sorry to use the P word!).

11:03 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I have all the Mongolian poems in folders (electronic and they are around in physical form).

Which makes me wonder if I might make it a project to write a poetry series based on the idea of how reality can be "romanticised" etc

After all as teenager, I avidly read Biggles, then later, sci fi, Conrad, and such as Ryder Haggard.

Ryder Haggard was of them all possibly for a young teenager the most exciting. But like Murnane I realise that that distant (erotic-romantic) land of my mind and some inexhaustibly mysterious and indeed "dark" place, is in my mind...

We need these impossible places, as indeed Eliot says in one of the Quatets "human kind cannot bear too much reality"....

Maybe tie this all into a Mongolia book!?

11:20 pm  
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8:06 pm  
Blogger Purva Sharegistry said...

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8:06 pm  

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