Tunisia’s Liquid Gold

When you think of good quality olive oil, which countries first come to mind? This week, we’re travelling to the heart of the world’s largest exporter of organic olive oil to learn all about the liquid gold that graces dinner tables around the globe. And it’s not where you’d expect.

This episode was produced by Zeina Dowidar and edited by Dana Ballout. Fact checking by Deena Sabry and sound design by Youssef Douazou. Our team also includes Alex Atack, Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

Kaia Olive Oil is on Instagram at @worldofkaia and at worldofkaia.com.

You can find a transcript for this episode at our website: kerningcultures.com/kerningcultures.

Support this podcast on patreon.com/kerningcultures for as little as $2 a month.

Transcript

Note: our transcripts are made with a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may not reflect the audio with 100% accuracy.

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[STING]

ALEX ATACK: I’m Alex Atack – standing in for Dana this week – and this is Kerning Cultures: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So right now the only thing that surrounds us are olive trees, and it really feels like it’s the only thing you see until you can’t see anything else.

ALEX ATACK: This is Sarah Ben Romdane – showing producer Zeina Dowidar around her family farm, where the olive trees stretch in a chequered pattern all the way to the horizon.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So the soil, this one is quite sandy. Of course it can get green if it rains, and we hope it rains, but right now it hasn’t rained much, so it’s mostly beige-coloured sand. And then you’ve got trees which respectively have quite a big trunk because they’re old. And then the branches sort of surround the trunk and then fall back to cover it.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: As we walk up to this tree in front of us, how do you know when it’s ready to be picked?

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So, some people think some olives are green and some olives are black, and that there might be two varieties. In fact, there are thousands of varieties across the Mediterranean region and all of those olives are green and then turn black as they ripen. So you can pick them when they’re green, or you could pick them when they’re black, depending on what type of oil you want to produce.

ALEX ATACK: Sarah tried to find a tree that was just at the right amount of ripeness – perfect for the kind of oil she’s trying to make.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: Oh, I feel like here, see here it’s a mixture. This is like an ideal tree to harvest at this point in time. So we’ve got light green, we’ve got pastel purple, deeper purple. It’s exactly the colour I’m looking for.

ALEX ATACK: It’s olive harvesting season around the Mediterranean from November to January. And in one North African country, this is nothing new. In fact, olives have been harvested here for thousands and thousands of years.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: Olive trees have been cultivated here in Tunisia ever since the Phoenecians came here. And then Romans took over and then Arabs, and then the French. So it has always been a part of our culture.

ALEX ATACK: While northern Mediterranean countries like Italy and Greece prepare for another profitable harvest of their celebrated olive oil, Tunisia will find themselves and their olive oil largely invisible – even though their economy depends on it.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: I think unfortunately we live in a very cynical world where some people have more power than others. What is happening now is a continuation of what happened before. Our olive oil is completely stripped out of its context. And when you have a lack of transparency, obviously at some point there is gonna be exploitation happening.

ALEX ATACK: When you think of olive oil, like good olive oil, what comes to mind is probably those fancy Italian bottles you always buy at your local supermarket. Or the Greek brand you only get at the artisanal deli you window shop at.

But chances are, the best olive oil you’ve ever had was actually Tunisian – even if you didn’t know it. Today on Kerning Cultures, the pressing story of Tunisian olive oil.

Producer Zeina Dowidar takes the story from here. 

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: Olive oil in my family has like magical properties. It’s kind of sacred food.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Earlier this month, I hopped on the tube in London and went to meet Boutheina ben Salem. Boutheina is a Tunisian-French chef, who’s also based in London, and she’s the mastermind behind Babel de B, a supper club celebrating Tunisian food. And as we spoke, we quickly started to speak about only one thing: olive oil. Not for food, or for cooking, but olive oil in other areas of life. Even in the unseen. 

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: In a lot of parts of Tunisia, there is a lot of magic around food. So I really grew up in a world where food was pretty much everything to us – it’s an identity. It’s where we gather to celebrate and we gather to mourn as well. It has a very big importance to me because it’s also my heritage.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: You could really see this in her home: there was fresh fruit on every table, food-related posters and art everywhere, a wall calendar celebrating seasonal produce, crates of jarred and preserved vegetables in the living room, and a kitchen full of life and colour. She offered me a drink when I arrived, but there was another liquid I was there to speak to her about.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Do you remember the first time you had olive oil or the first time you, you know, used olive oil in one way or another?

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: Oh my God, I was born into it. I think my souvenir of olive oil is not really eating it, but it’s playing in my grandfather’s olive groves. And I think when I was old enough, it was really exciting because I could have sleepovers at my grandfather’s farm, and you’d wake up around 4am in the morning and prepare everything, and I was allowed to go with the women to harvest.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: You mentioned that your grandma uses olive oil in all aspects of her life. Can you give us a couple examples of what else she would use olive oil for?

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: Oh, so my auntie, so her daughters and her daughters-in-law, when I got pregnant, and then we are close to that due date, it was so fun. She would come and make sure they would drink a tiny shot of pure olive oil because in her mind it will help the baby to come out, like to slide out of the vagina, like easy. And every time one of her grandchildren, the girls, would have her period, she will take olive oil and she would put just a touch in the middle of the eyes here. So the idea is that we won’t have painful periods.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Did it ever work?

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: It never worked!

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Many families in Tunisia share similar childhood memories, with their own rituals and traditions that celebrate olive oil. Over half of the country’s land is used for agricultural production, and a third of that is planted with olive trees. But the magic and rituals around olive oil are not really accessible to everyone.

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: In Tunisia, people cannot consume what they produce because they cannot afford it. It is so expensive today that most Tunisians consume a very poor quality oil that we call zeit el hakem, which we translate to ‘government oil’.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: This government oil is a low-quality mixture of other oils, such as soybean and palm oil, that is imported from abroad to serve the local market. I couldn’t understand why Tunisians would use zeit el hakem when they produce olive oil themselves. And they’re not just a small producer, either.

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: I mean, Tunisia is the largest exporter of organic hand harvested olive oil. And yet no one knows about it.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: According to most sources, Tunisia is the one of the world’s largest producers of olive oil, producing over 6% of the global supply.But I found it very strange that I’d never seen a bottle of Tunisian olive oil. Like on the shelves or at any stores. It was never something that I came across or even read on a label.

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: I agree with you, that is insane that a country that exports 90% of its national production is completely, I mean – we don’t know about it. No one knows about it. And when I started to do my super clubs, I would put olive oil on the table as we do in Tunisia, you know, it’s our antipasti. And they’re surprised that it comes from Tunisia. They didn’t know, and they’re surprised that it is so good. And I told them, this fancy oil you buy on the shelves here from Greece or Spain or Italy, it is probably from Tunisia.

Like most of the people who will listen to the podcast, you probably have already eaten, tried, bought olive oil from Tunisia. But you don’t know because there is no mention of the origins of this.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: How could a country that is so reliant on one product be completely invisible? To figure out what was going on, I wanted to go there myself. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And planning the strip was a bit of a mess because harvest, obviously you can’t predict when the olives are going to be ready to be harvested. So we had to last minute move flights and move things around because the harvest was actually coming early that year. But there were no flights that were coming early.

So yeah, the harvest came earlier, and I had to very frantically move my flights to a day or two from that day. I flew to Tunis and I went straight from the airport onto a three hour car journey east of Tunis along the coast to a small city called Mahdia.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: So basically what really caught my attention on the journey there was, even though it was getting dark on our trip, everywhere you’re looking, on the left and the right hand side of the main sort of highway that we were driving on, were olive trees. It was just rows and rows and rows of olive trees. You know that Brother Bear scene, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Brother Bear?

ARCHIVE [BROTHER BEAR SCENE]: You wanna play eye spy? I spy something green. Tree? I spy something tall. Tree? I spy something with bark. Tree?

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Olives have long been cultivated in Tunisia for ages. The country has 2500 year old tree that was still producing olives. In the ancient world, Tunisia was often described as Rome’s breadbasket, and when I spoke to Boutheina about it, and she reminded me that for many years, France considered Tunisia as basically the same thing.

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: Well, let’s go back to a few centuries ago: 1881. Tunisia became a French protectorate, another world for colonisation, right? And olive oil is such a lucrative commodity. So what France did is that it imposed an export oriented monoculture production of olive oil.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: France brought their colonial fantasies of a renewed North African breadbasket to Tunisia – and what went from small family farms like Boutheina’s family, turned into large landowners producing olives, among other fruit and veg, directly for export.

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: After the independence in 1956, instead of promoting and leading a policy of food sovereignty, the Tunisian state actually encouraged an intensive export-oriented olive production. 

ARCHIVE [OLD NEWSREEL]: The Republic of Tunisia, not yet a week old… 

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: So it created a situation where a few people, a few oligarchs, really benefited from, from this policy.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: This system has remained the same since, with Tunisia continuing to be Europe’s breadbasket. Or in this case, olive oil bottle.

After a few more hours in the car, I finally arrived in Mahdia. Mahdia is a small city along the coast of Tunisia. And when I say coastal, I mean right on the coast. As soon as I got out of the car, I could smell the sea salt from inside the car, and I could hear the waves crashing against the walls of the houses. This is city was the hometown of the person I was here to see: Sarah ben Romdane. 

When COVID-19 hit, Sarah was living in Paris, working as a journalist. The isolation and anxiety got to her like it did to many of us, and she looked for a chance to escape, even just for a few weeks.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: I was able to come here for my summer holiday, like every year, 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sarah came to Mahdia to relax and unwind, and I could see why she would. It’s a picture perfect mediterranean town, and I myself instantly relaxing as soon as I arrived. Her family had a home in Mahdia for decades, to be close to their olive estates in a nearby town. Sarah told me about it as we drove around. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And how old is your family’s estate? 

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: My family has had it for a century-ish. I can’t remember the right date, but it’s very early 20th century.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: More than five generations of her family have tended to the estates, harvesting olives every single year.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: For example, my great-grandfather and his father and his grandfather exported to the States as early as in the 19th century, and won prizes there. But then I’d say roughly around the fifties, sixties, my family stopped producing olive oil. For different reasons, but mostly because people left this region, moved on with their lives, I guess, decided to commit to other careers or industries.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Something about being back near the olive trees felt magical for Sarah, she felt like it gave her some sort of inner purpose.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: I realised: I feel happy in this place that is sunny and warm and reminds me of happy memories of joy with my family and my cousins.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And so she decided to stick around for a while. And while she was there, and as a born-and-bred foodie, she started looking into how her family’s olive estates were managed, and where the olives go. Although the harvest was collected every year, the olives hadn’t been pressed by her family since her grandfather was in charge. Instead, she found out, the olives would be harvested each year, but then sold to another producer.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: There is a series of middle men in the supply chain. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: These middle men are the key to the story – they explain why I couldn’t find any Tunisian olive oil on the shelves at my local supermarket or anywhere else, for that matter. And they found that the biggest bucks could be made not by exporting Tunisian olive oil as a ‘made in Tunisia’ product, but rather, to sell it to another series of middle men: olive oil manufacturers in Europe.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So yeah, currently most olive oils that you find abroad, like in northern countries is Tunisian olive oil that was blended to other oils and olive oils from different countries from different seasons. Sometimes as well. They are sold without any mention of the 10 origin or any origin, generally speaking.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: The oil is blended, making Tunisia invisible in the olive oil industry. The middle men act as conduits between small producers and exporters, and they help these big companies buy Tunisian olive oil for very cheap costs.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: It is bought at a super cheap price by the big industrial players that basically profit off Tunisia’s weaker economy to have cheap labour and cheap olive oil, and then resell it in Europe under European brand names with no mention of its origins and no context.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: This idea drove Sarah crazy: that a year’s worth of work – a lifetime’s worth of work for many generations of families – would be written off as a line in some big European company’s budget, with no reference at all to the toil and trouble Tunisian farmers went through to produce it.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: And so I realised that the way Tunisian olive oil was being produced and marketed and exported was unfair. And I started thinking and connecting the dots and I was like, well we have olive estates that we’ve had for hundreds of years for generations that we unfortunately are not, in my opinion at least, honouring. And so I told my dad, listen, I think I want to launch an olive oil brand from our estate. 

I was like, well, this is it. This is basically a project that can be the vessel for all of those things, and it happens to be on our family estate in the countryside of Mahdia, our family’s town of origin. Like here is the answer! It’s literally just here. Like, why should I look for answers abroad and so far away from me when I can be happy and fulfilled here?

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And so with a plan of action, Sarah looked to revolutionise the olive industry in Tunisia. And to do that, she needed to harvest some olives. That’s right after this break. 

[MIDROLL]

ZEINA DOWIDAR: We’re back! Its 2022 and Sarah’s been producing olive oil for two years. I went to visit her in November, right as her third harvest began. I followed the process with her to learn how she’s hoping to change the way Tunisian olive oil is seen in the world. 

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So we’re almost arriving to Bouthedi and you’ll see when we get there, I always get this feeling of arriving at the end of the world, if that makes sense. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: It did make sense. In front of us, the road felt like it was carved into the olive farms, that the trees were there millennia before we were. We got out of the car and started walking further into the field. Sarah explained to me that the estate, which was owned by her extended family, was split into little sections. 

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: And so this parcel is called al Makina because it’s next to the makina, which in colloquial Tunisian means the mill. So our old mill, and it’s where I am harvesting this season. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: As we walked towards her parcel, I noticed that it was mostly women working on the land. They had these wide, dark green nets placed on the sandy ground around each tree, and wooden ladders propped open so they could climb them. And as we walked over, everyone greeted me with open arms.

AMBI: Zeina and Sarah Saying hi to the workers

ZEINA DOWIDAR: I sat down while they were having their lunch break, and they told me all about the olive trees around us. 

These women were parts of generations of their families that have worked on similar olive farms, and speaking to them, I realised how much the olive tree and olive oil mean. One of them explained to me how in religious scriptures, the olive tree is said to cry if you hit it with a stick or shake it very hard, so it’s important to take care when harvesting to keep the tree happy. They prayed to God that the trees will continue to be strong as they were, and they were worried that less rainfall meant less of a harvest each year. Sarah works to keep their traditional practices alive, and takes care of the trees as part of the process.

 ZEINA DOWIDAR: momken ya Mounira teshraheely enty betaamely eih delwaaty?

AMBI: Zeina talking to Mounira

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Mounira, one of the workers, showed me how she used a plastic rake, similar to one you’d find kids using at the beach, to brush the olives off of the trees. By doing this, they can make sure they break any branches, and avoid harming the olives or the tree as part of the the process.

AMBI: Zeina talking to Mounira

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sarah’s entire harvest was built around tradition. She cares deeply about her oil, and makes sure that not even eight hours pass between when she picks them, and when she presses them. And so, after a long day at the farm, we drove over to the olive mill.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: Hello hello hello, my name is Sarah, and we are at the mill.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: The mill was a giant single room that looked like a warehouse. It was a communal mill used by many farms around the town, and so hundreds of crates of olives were stacked up outside.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: It looks more like a lab type of process than something really artisanal I would say, but this is how olives are crushed in 2022.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was more like a factory, with these giant stainless steel machines taking the olives from one part of the process to the next.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: And the process consists of different steps. The first one being bringing the olives to the mill, and then once they get here, they go through a process where all the remaining leaves are put on the side and then they get washed with water and then they get crushed. And then we have a malaxation process where it turns into a paste until it goes through a centrifuge process. And then, we split the water from the oil and we get the oil.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: The oil that cames out was this incredible, almost neon green. It looked almost like mountain dew – that’s how green it was.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: But because it doesn’t really have a long shelf life, usually the oil gets filtered after, which gives it this golden shiny appearance.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sarah closely oversaw basically every step of the process herself.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: So right now, we’re at the mill, and Sarah’s picking out leaves while they’re being separated. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: What I thought would be an hour or two of work and back in bed by midnight ended up being a much longer affair than I expected.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So some days we start earlier, some days we start later, depending on when the arrive, whether there are other people at the mill and we need to wait for them to finish. Now it’s 10:30, and we’re going to be here a few more hours until everything’s pressed. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR [VOICE NOTE]: We’re officially at hour 5 in the mill. It’s currently 3:30 am. I’m crashing, my body is dying, I’m sitting in the back of the car while Sarah is outside finishing things up and packing things up and working with the workers to make sure all of the olive oil is packed correctly.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: I couldn’t understand why we were still here at 3am. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Why does the process start so late in the evening for you compared to others?

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: We start so late at the mill because, I wanna make sure I can cold press my olives and for that to happen, the machines temperatures must be low. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: For olive oil to be considered cold-pressed – you might have seen that on the label of some fancier olive oils at your supermarket – the olives need to be pressed at a temperature below 27 degrees celsius.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: And it’s not the case during the day. And the reason for that is because most people in Tunisia unfortunately, press their olives at a high temperature.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: The higher your temperature, the more juice is squeezed out of the olive. You get more bang for your buck. But in doing so, the quality of the olive oil is totally destroyed. But the thing is – it doesn’t matter.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: And that’s because within the current state of the olive oil trade, Tunisian olive oil is sold in bulk at a cheap price. Not only is it unfair in terms of social justice, but it has also had negative consequences on the reputation of Tunisian olive oil.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: And that’s exactly what Sarah’s trying to change. By exporting her olive oil as ‘Made in Tunisia’ olive oil, using traditional techniques to preserve the quality and flavour of the olives, she’s hoping to shed light on the incredible flavours and value of Tunisian olive oil.  

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: We export our olive to other people in a way that is not empowering us, and then our people are leaving because they don’t feel empowered. We’re like, everything that is, that belongs to us is erased in a way that to me, like reclaiming this product and, and feeling so proud about it and sharing stories about it really is – it’s about resilience and saying no, like we will continue to exist and our culture is rich and deserves to be celebrated and appreciated.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sarah has a lot of challenges around her harvest – trying to export directly to her consumers and businesses is not easy, and she faces many hurdles, particularly around exporting. I loved the way Sarah described it to me, as we sat outside at 2am waiting for the last of the olives to be pressed.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: It feels like giving birth. It’s a moment that I don’t wanna miss, because despite the fact that I’m tired, it’s also a beautiful moment. And it’s beautiful because I’m tired and I put so much energy into it. I mean, I’ve never given birth, but you’re so tired when you give birth. But it’s beautiful and I feel like it’s the same. There’s so much energy and effort that I put into this, but it’s because I have so much emotion in the process as well.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: After a long day’s work, I finally got to try Tunisia’s famous olive oil.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: What’s the best way to taste olive oil?

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: If you really want to taste an olive oil the legit way, you have to do it in a small tainted glass because you don’t want the colour to influence your perception of the taste. Sometimes people will think, oh, it’s green, so it’s gonna taste so intense. But you can have a green coloured oil that is not so intense and a golden coloured olive oil that can be. 

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Sarah grabbed some spoons, and helped me figure out exactly what to taste for.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: Now this variety, often the flavour profile is almond, it can be nutty. Or when it’s harvested early-ish, it also can feel a bit grassy.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: It was then time to try yesterday’s harvest. And i wanted to do it as professionally as possible.

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: You’re meant to like swallow the sip and then get some air inside of your mouth and like do a weird thing, don’t, don’t make fun of me, but it should be something like.

AMBI: Zeina and Sarah trying olive oil, laughing

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: So to me, this one is a soft green almond.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Because I only travelled with backpack, I couldn’t bring any of Sarah’s olive oil back home with me, and I was worried I’d never find good olive oil again. So I asked Boutheina back in London for help. 

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: The only thing I could say is that try as many as you can. Don’t go just for one brand because the branding is so beautiful and the price is so high that you think, oh, this, this is probably the best. That’s not true, actually. I would say if you really had to choose, go for small producers.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Looking for single origin olive oils is the way to go – less of a chance of it being blended, which means you can guarantee the quality. And good quality olive oil is something every household should have.

BOUTHEINA BEN SALEM: Because it’s such a gift from nature and God – that’s what they say – that you should always keep a tiny bit of olive oil, so you make sure that your kitchen is always full of food. And the idea is that we are blessed by this really very special, powerful olives and olive oil.

ALEX ATACK: This episode was produced by Zeina Dowidar and edited by Dana Ballout. Fact checking was by Deena Sabry and sound design and mixing by Youssef Douazou. Our team also includes Nadeen Shaker and Finbar Anderson.

If you have any stories about family traditions or rituals that involve olive oil, send a voice note to Zeina, she’s at zeina@kerningcultures.com, or over our Instagram which is @kerningcultures.

ZEINA DOWIDAR: A huge, huge thank you to everyone who spoke to me for this story. Thank you to Boutheina ben Salem for the lovely conversations and delicious olive oil. You can follow all her incredible mouth-watering food adventures at @boutheia.b.salem on Instagram. and Thank you especially to Sarah ben Romdane for opening your home and life to me for a few days. You can find her olive oil, Kaia Olive oil, online at @worldofkaia on Instagram, and worldofkaia.com. She’s been working incredibly hard to get this season’s harvest out, and she’s just released some beautiful unfiltered olive oil on her website. We squeezed in our interviews throughout the busy harvest schedule, which meant that we were often recording at weird times – like 2:30 am at the mill. It led to conversations like this:

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: When I started thinking about quitting my job to produce olive oil from the family estate, its weird because it was a mixture of like – I have issues with pronouncting this word. So let me tell you – cevenderpity?

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Oh my god. Seripen – sera – serendipity?

SARAH BEN ROMDANE: Let’s google it!

ZEINA DOWIDAR: I feel like its getting stuck in my head now. Serendipity, how to pronounce it.

So yeah, when I started thinking about quitting my job and producing olive oil from my family estate, it really felt like a mixture of serenpedity [laughing].

ZEINA DOWIDAR: Thank you again.

ALEX ATACK: We’ll be back with a new episode, its the first episode of a four part series, one we’ve been working on for ages, we’re really excited about it. And there’ll be a episode on olive oil later in the season. Thanks for listening.

[STING]