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Rough Translation: How 'Anna Karenina' Saved A Somali Inmate's Life


This next one is about how an encounter with a book at just the right time in your life can change you. It comes from our new international podcast, Rough Translation. Here's Gregory Warner.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Mohamed Barud (ph) was 31 years old and a newlywed when he was sentenced to life in prison in Somalia. This was 1981. Somalia was ruled by a military dictator, Siad Barre. And Mohamed's crime, if you can call it that, was writing a letter complaining about the conditions of the local hospital, a complaint the government saw as treasonous.

MOHAMED BARUD: We were blindfolded, handcuffed and sent to a cell.

WARNER: The one rule of this prison - it's forbidden to talk.

BARUD: It was strictly forbidden to talk to your neighbors. So you walk forward and backward.

WARNER: He's pacing back and forth.

BARUD: And this is a tiny place to walk back and forth. Three short steps.

WARNER: And in the total silence, Mohamed is thinking about his young wife, whose name was Ismahan (ph). She was 20 years old, a teller at the state bank.

BARUD: I could not imagine how she is because there's no news from the world.

WARNER: He started to wonder, would she wait for him?

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

WARNER: The government was saying you should divorce.

BARUD: Yes, because they were traitors, these people who were in prison. And I was thinking sometimes that she could.

WARNER: They'd only been married for three months. And he was sentenced to life. In the dark, in the silence, he started to feel resentment toward her.

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

WARNER: And then he'd tell himself, no, this is crazy to think about.

BARUD: Nobody can visit this prison. Nobody can get in touch. And, 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?

BARUD: I probably hate her at that particular time.

WARNER: Mohamed was shocked at his own feelings. Was he going crazy?

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

WARNER: Finally, one night, eight months into this prison sentence, as the guard is passing just out of earshot, an inmate in the next cell whispers to him. He says...

BARUD: Learn ABC through the wall. Learn ABC through the wall. I did not understand. Learn ABC through the wall. How can I? I looked at the wall between us. So - but then he knocked on the wall.

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

BARUD: It did this. (Knocking).

WARNER: A code.

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

WARNER: Mohamed now had a way to talk and be answered. And the person tapping back was actually a doctor, Dr. Adan Abokor. He was the director of that hospital that Mohamed had written that letter about, the letter that got them thrown in prison. The doctor said he tried his best to ease Mohamed's suffering.

ADAN ABOKOR: And I was trying to - counseling him. And I explained 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: Two years into their prison sentence, the doctor is called into the warden's office for his first change of clothes. Somehow, he catches the warden in a generous mood, and the warden lets him take a book back to his cell, a precious commodity in solitary confinement.

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: On the other side of the wall, the next thing Mohamed hears...

ABOKOR: (Knocking) I have a book - a book. And I'll read it to you chapter by chapter. (Knocking). "Anna Karenina."

WARNER: "Anna Karenina."

"Anna Karenina" is a about 800 pages, 350,000 words, nearly 2 million letters, each letter a set of taps. So the doctor wraps a bedsheet around his hand to protect it.

ABOKOR: Because it would damage my wrist if I continued like that. So then I started knocking, and he started listening.

WARNER: The story of "Anna Karenina" is the story of a young, Russian noblewoman married to a man much older than herself. She goes to a ball and falls in love with a soldier, Count Vronsky. But instead of having a secret affair like others in her social set, she leaves her husband, makes her love public. And she's punished. She's isolated and alone. Anna stays in her room, wondering what her lover is up to when he's not with her, kind of like Mohamed was wondering what his wife was doing outside the prison walls. Mohamed reads me this one sentence from the book.

BARUD: (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.

Anna is trapped by views about women and maybe desire, but you were trapped by real walls.

BARUD: Yeah.

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

BARUD: She was suffering all the time.

WARNER: This 19th century Russian noblewoman seemed to be suffering exactly like he was. An honest suffering drives her into a state that Mohamed most feared for himself. Anna throws herself under a train and regrets it too late.

BARUD: I really cried. I felt for her.

WARNER: Mohamed realizes his tears are not just for Anna.

BARUD: That's when I remember my wife.

WARNER: He's thinking about Ismahan, his wife.

BARUD: How much she's suffering. And yes. The book's the one that brought me back to think about her a lot.

WARNER: Tolstoy is brilliant at showing a scene from one point of view and then shifting the frame, showing the same scene from a different character's perspective. Mohamed credits Tolstoy and his perspective-shifting style with pulling him out of his mental prison.

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

WARNER: You know, it's interesting because we think of empathy as something that we should do for other people.

BARUD: Yeah. Yeah.

WARNER: But you're saying that empathy also is healthy for ourselves.

BARUD: It is. It is because you cannot concentrate on yourself. Then you realize, I'm not alone in this very difficult situation.

WARNER: He was right. His wife was suffering. While Mohamed was in that cell, Somalia was falling into civil war. His wife, Ismahan, became a refugee, but she withstood the pressure to divorce him. And when the political winds shifted and Mohamed was released eight years later, they reunited. They still live in the city where they first fell in love.


KELLY: That is Gregory Warner. He's host of NPR's new international podcast, Rough Translation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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