Archive for October, 2007

Home Alone

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Four Brothers and a Nephew (Juma with beard)

Juma has stopped by twice during the last few days. He was worried about us, he said. Masayo had returned to Japan at the end of September; Makiko and her husband followed ten days later. Ahmad has been gone almost two weeks. William and I are all alone.

For Ahmad’s brother Juma, as he explained during his visits, the goal of life isn’t accumulating wealth. The purpose of life is to live it with people, to have friends and family all around. Now here we were, home alone! He thought we were probably quite lonely.

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Last weekend, we were invited to dinner at a restaurant outside the city. Our host brought along not only his wife and two young children, but also his mother, one of his nephews, his brother, sister-in-law, and their infant daughter. When I told his wife that my daughter Katie is in Istanbul working, she was surprised and sad. Isn’t she lonely? Intisar asked. I explained that in the US, children often leave their parents’ house when they finish high school. This idea seemed quite unacceptable. “We have close families here,” she responded.

When Hala, my wonderful teacher, left Aleppo to go to the university in Latakia, she lived with her aunt. When she finished, she returned to her parents’ home. Young men and young women generally live with their parents until they marry. Our friend Victoria, an Armenian Syrian whose family has been in Aleppo for generations, is about to be married. She and her fiancé have just bought a house blocks away from her parents.

I asked many people what they did to celebrate the Eid holiday that ended Ramadan. Each described the same program. The first day, all of the children and their families go to visit the parents and grandparents. The next day, they go to visit the next circle of relatives. Holidays seem always to be celebrated with family.

My training as an economic historian makes me appreciate the financial benefit of the close connections. Syria has just introduced its first credit card; nearly everything in the country still has to be bought either with cash or with informal credit based on personal trust. There are still no mortgages available for financing the purchase of non-commercial property. To buy a house or begin a business, people seem to rely on intra-family borrowing.

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But more than financial necessity, the very close ties among family and friends seem to suggest significantly different attitudes, values, and interactions than the ones I have lived around. Americans who can afford it decorate a separate room for the new baby before s/he is even born, and most often leave their children behind when going out for entertainment. (Here babies and toddlers asleep in their parents’ arms are visible in all public places late into the night–taking your children with you to social events is simply assumed.) Our geographic mobility takes us far away from our own parents, and will likely take our children far away from us. And not relying on others has long been part of an American mantra.

In Syria, as Juma’s concern illustrates, being alone is a state to be avoided. Being surrounded by the people who love you, whether shouting or dancing, is much to be preferred. It is, as he says, the point of this life.

I think he couldn’t understand our delight in having a bit of “alone time.”

—–  

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After William read the post above, he showed me “Dick and Jane: Leaving the Nest” in Pulp, a glossy monthly we picked up in Jordan. The English-language magazine, published in Amman, focuses on music and entertainment for a twenty-something to thirty-something upscale audience. Unfortunately, they don’t yet have a website. Here is one excerpt:

Jane: People want independence!

Dick: Independence?

Jane: Independence! Haven’t you ever felt so frustrated with being with your parents all the time? …

Dick: This whole grown-up-hence-moving-out phenomenon is a Western social construction. It’s not natural–for US. We stay with our families, we don’t send our grandmothers to nursing homes—our grandmothers stay with us, or at least really close by. Your grandmother is at your house all the time–everyday! So, we’re basing this desire on a system that we don’t have. This super individualism is not part of our culture, as much as others are trying to force it on us for, frankly, their own benefit. Until we have a family of our own and our parents’ house is too small and we become burdens, we stay with our parents.

October 28, 2007 at 7:46 am 2 comments

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

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Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

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On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

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No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Aqaba

We toured Aqaba our second and last night. Malik, our long-time friend, had invited his cousin along. Basma is a human rights attorney in Jordan who has been insisting on prison reform and women’s rights through both her activism and the cases she has chosen to take pro bono. The four of us had dinner, then drove to what Malik called the “suq,” which looks like a downtown main street. Aqaba has been declared a tax free zone, making everything there cheaper than elsewhere in Jordan.

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People were out in large numbers, buying gifts and the necessities for Eid, the three-day celebration that ends Ramadan and will begin either tonight or tomorrow night when someone sees the new moon that indicates the start of the new month, al-Hijja (month of the haj).

Malik’s best friend Arif met us downtown and took us to Aqaba’s brand new mall on the outskirts of town, mysteriously named “Aqaba City Center.” Basma was trying to find information on new digital cameras, and we were along for the ride. (We also found a supermarket with vanilla extract and baking powder, two things unavailable anywhere in Aleppo.)  While downtown was jammed and jumping, the mall was very quiet.

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I asked to look at the Crusader-era fortress that Faysal’s forces had struggled so hard to liberate, according to the movie at least. It is quite small. A plaza has been built on the water nearby to celebrate the “Great Revolt,” and a huge, special Great Revolt Flag waves over it. A nearby nightclub was playing local music quite loudly, and the plaza was full of people.

All five of us went to the Royal Dive Club, formerly a private facililty of the Royal Family, which they handed over for others’ use. From the pier that juts into the Gulf of Aqaba, an arc of lights indicates Jordan’s Aqaba, Israel’s Eilat, Egypt’s Taba, and just beyond the last green neon, Saudi Arabia’s Tabuq (5 km away). Arif told me that there were efforts to create an infrastructure to coordinate the needs of the four countries’ ports. (He also told us that local people are ambivalent when the US Navy makes its annual appearance at the Saudi port for joint exercises; though they disapprove and dislike American policy in the region, the annual event is great for Jordan’s struggling travel industry. Why is Jordan’s travel industry struggling? I asked. It’s because people think all the countries here are Iraq, he said. They don’t realize that we are very stable; people aren’t traveling to the region at all.

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The lights of Israel’s Eilat, just across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Jordan’s Aqaba.

The remarkable proximity of the four countries was startling, even after spending years looking at Middle East maps.  The lights of Eilat seemed visible everywhere; in the daylight, the mountains of Egypt seemed very close.   Back on the beach, the Diving Club’s big tent with couches, tables, and large pillows provides a comfortable place to sit while drinking coffee or wine, and listening to whatever the DJ plays. (You can ask him for your favorite music, Malik told William, but he will play his own anyway.) Over coffee, we talked about the causes of continuing regional conflict, and the ways to begin solving them, and the need for more academic, citizen, and journalist exchanges.

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We said goodbye to Arif, and the next morning to Muhammad Sea and the staff, and had a nearly-uneventful trip back to Amman (until the car began making dreadful scraping noises.  It is in the shop now.) 

October 13, 2007 at 2:09 pm Leave a comment

Petra

I understand now why Petra is included in the recent list of the 7 Wonders of the World.

Back up the road to Amman for almost 100 kilometers, we got a better look at the mountains, the goats, the donkeys, the intermittent bedouin tents, and the occasional camel-crossing warning sign. The road past Wadi Musa (where some say the biblical Moses brought water from the rock) is quite beautiful, passing through a number of small villages and two huge international hotels before descending, descending down to the visitors station of Petra. This is a national monument that the Jordanian government is clearly interested in both preserving and promoting. Admission is a bit pricy for foreigners ($30 each; Jordanians pay about $1.50).

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The upper plaza is open to the sun, which was still very hot in mid-October. The walking path descends for a while before entering the Siq, a canyon paved by the Nabateans and the Romans after them, whose high walls provide shade and cool. This was the place where the Nabateans processed during religious ceremonies, and it is indeed awe-inspiring. The cliff faces on both sides rise sharply in many colors simultaneously. An open pipe carved into the rock at waist-level all along the Siq provided water to the Napatean capital.

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The narrow Siq ends abruptly directly in front of what appears to be a fabulous classical building. But it wasn’t built, it was carved, carved into the stone faces. The Nabateans were spectacular carvers, and Petra displays an amazing intersection between a spectacular natural rock formation and a creative and skilled human effort. The carved building facades are quite beautiful. In some, the combination of the swirling stone coloring and the carvings made them look like something Dr. Seuss might have consulted on. We didn’t walk all the way to the Temple, but did see a number of tombs and a Nabatean ampitheater that the Romans expanded. We tried to imaging what it might have been like living in this city, what people might have eaten, how they would have used the spaces.

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The Nabateans were a tribe from Arabia, whose empire stretched from Damascus south to the center of Arabia and lasted from the second century BC through the second century AD. Petra, the capital city, remained important well after the empire was assimilated by the Romans in 106 AD . A pre-Islamic Arab tribe whose writing seems to have prefigured early Arabic script, the Nabateans are an important symbol of the kind of identity the Kingdom of Jordan emphasizes.

The city is spread along a valley and up into the hillside, houses, tombs, and public buildings all carved into the stone. Vendors offer coffee, tea, soda, and souvenirs at various places within the monument. One young man from the neighboring town approached us, his arms full of necklaces, speaking English. Malik explained that he belongs to a local tribe that thrives on the tourist industry, each member knowing how to speak many languages. As we admired his wares, he talked to Malik. Their business is local, he explained. They make their jewelry from local stone, camel bone, and camel teeth. The government was thinking about allowing big firms to take over the souvenir trade in Petra, he told Malik. Why don’t they just provide support to the local craftspeople instead?

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We were tired, and decided to hire another young man with a horse carriage to take us back up, up to the entrance. The horse seemed very tired. At one point he handed Malik the reins, instructing him how to drive, then left briefly to talk with someone. When we got to the Roman road, he took them back–we understand why Romans had big wheels. (We didn’t!)

Suddenly, a rider galloped past us, quite a feat inside the Siq! He called to our driver, who gave up the reins and ran after him. Seems they were both trying to get to a horse that had run off. Our driver disappeared. Malik, and then William, drove the slowest horse at Petra. We must have looked quite cute, as people from a large busloads of Israeli tourists kept stopping to photograph us. I think it was our speed–our horse was apparently used to drawing an Amish-style cart and moved at that rate.

As we approached the end of the road, we began wondering what we would do with this horse, whose driver was nowhere to be seen. He appeared at the last moment, took the payment, and introduced himself as “Dr. Love.”

October 13, 2007 at 1:13 pm 1 comment

Muhammad Sea

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The road from Amman to Aqaba is rocky desert, beige, and tedious until a few kilometers south of Ma’an, when it seems the tall scraggy mountains converge on the car from both sides of the road. Actually, it resembled closely the desert out the windows on the road from Damascus to Jordan the day before. It was late afternoon on Tuesday by the time we left Amman. Aqaba is Jordan’s not only Jordan’s only port, but also the country’s only access to the sea, and the road between Amman and Aqaba is filled with trucks. At sunset, we passed trucks parked along the side of the highway for nearly a kilometer, their drivers breaking the fast. One group had gathered together on stools on the shoulder, cooking from a camping stove on the truck.

The darkness prevented our seeing much beyond the immediate roadside from Ma’an to Aqaba, and we went immediately to Malik’s favorite restaurant. It was 10:00 when we arrived at Dune Beach Village to celebrate William’s birthday. Dune Beach Village is a collection of small cottages with terrific views of the Gulf of Aqaba. The owners had been displaced from their previous sites when large multinational hotel chains began building on the prime seaside property in town. People like Muhammad Sea moved further outside of town, and have created a comfortable alternative to elite hotels. When I asked Muhammad how he had become interested in diving, he told me his story.

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William and Muhammad Sea

Muhammad Sea grew up in a family bedouin in Wadi Rum. He couldn’t seem to get the answers right in his three years in school; when he refused to return because the teachers kept hitting him for his errors, his parents let him stay home, help with the other children, and learn to tend the camels. Soon after his father died, he went for a month to stay with his sister, who had married a member of their tribe living in Aqaba. Muhammad was quite taken with the sea and the city, and urged his mother to move. Muhammad tried his hand at fishing, but didn’t like being under someone else’s (the captain’s) orders. He did learn to swim.

He explained that he was looking for something he could do in his country, to encourage people to appreciate Jordan and all it had to offer. He went to Egypt to learn to dive, and when he returned, Muhammad set up Aqaba’s first dive expeditions. I found the story of bedouin-camel-herder-to-scuba-dive-instructor so unlikely I asked Malik if he just made up these stories to amuse tourists. Malik reassured me that Muhammad’s story was true. Muhammad added, “I grew up between mountains and stones, not between McDonalds and Pizza Hut.”

Within a short time, Muhammad was taking trips overseas with new friends. One Australian girl he befriended took him to Amman for a visa so he could visit her country. At that time, he said, he had never seen Amman and did not know where Australia. He is now well-traveled (his favorite places in the world are the Sinai Desert and Damascus), and talk of his first visit to Amman sent him off on another story.

Back in the 1960s, Muhammad’s father came home one day and reported seeing strangers visiting near their place at Wadi Rum. As was the custom, his father slaughtered some sheep and goats and his mother began preparing bread and food. (Muhammad explained that men take care of the killing of animals and the coffee-making, and women make bread and rice and everything else needed for the meals.) After dinner, the strangers took part in a local ritual of setting the heads of the animals some distance away for target-shooting competition. When it was Muhammad’s father’s turn, he refused, saying he couldn’t shoot their kind of guns. They suggested he get his own, which he did, and got the best shot. As the strangers were leaving, King Hussein invited him to the palace in Amman for a visit. (The other two guests turned out to be Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, in Wadi Rum to shoot scenes for Lawrence of Arabia). Muhammad’s father explained to the King that he never traveled without his knife and gun, so Hussein wrote and signed a letter asking people to permit him to come to the palace wearing his weapons.

Muhammad explained how his father had to show the letter to the bus driver, the hotel manager, the Amman taxi driver, and the royal guards in order to be permitted to continue at each step. He did finally get to see the King, who was pleased to see him again and gave him 300 Jordanian dinars with instructions to buy provisions and distribute them among the bedouin of Wadi Rum.

jordanmap.pngFrom Wikipedia

October 11, 2007 at 1:54 pm Leave a comment

Aleppo Ramadan

Ramadan is about to enter its last week. Although we arrived only a month before it began, the changes have been evident. The first few days of the month seemed quite strange, almost tense. There is a different feeling now, as if the city has settled into the fast. Our friend Samer tells us that the streets will become more crowded than ever as people begin to shop for the new clothing to wear during the three-day holiday that will mark the end of the fast.

For us, the month is marked by the visible changes in our friends and on the streets. For Muslim friends here, the month is more spiritual than material. Some who regularly drink wine (forbidden in Islam) abstain during Ramadan as part of a general effort to become reconnected with the faith. Those internal changes aren’t immediately obvious to those of us on the outside.

The days have a markedly different rhythm, from the first drums outside the house to the last call to prayer. In our neighborhood, the 4:00 a.m. drummer (listen to the drummer) plays something sounding quite bass; in Idlib the neighborhood drummer awakens people with a snare. There isn’t much time to eat then before the sunrise, when we simultaneously hear four calls to pray from the closest mosques (listen). People then go back to sleep for a few hours. School begins early enough, though, that there isn’t much time for more sleep. I’ve been surprised that, instead of letting the kids sleep later during Ramadan, the schools begin at the regular time and let the children out an hour earlier.

Activity seems to go on as usual until about 5:30, when the streets become frenetic with everyone hurrying to get home. Lines for the minibuses get longer and longer, and the large buses get fuller as everyone tries to get home in time to break the fast. For those out on the streets when the sun sets, there is a special kind of juice served. A few nights ago a friendly middle-aged purveyor of the drink insisted that William try some. Special rolls and sweet breads make their appearance.

For us, Ramadan has meant rescheduling things. Since it is impossible to find transportation between 5:30 and 6:30, we try to go out earlier or later. On Wednesday we found ourselves waiting and waiting for a taxi. A man in an SUV pulled up and offered us a ride. He is a native of Aleppo, and knew that we would never be able to find a taxi at that hour, so wanted to make sure we got to our destination. Where did you learn English? William asked. At Aleppo College, an American high school/junior college where my colleague Bob Cunningham used to teach. Our kind driver told us he admired the Americans, the school, and Bob’s colleague, the charming Makhloul Butros whom we had met just days earlier. (Many years ago, I’ll tell my students, people used to know the United States for the very important schools we established in the Middle East, schools like Aleppo College, Robert College in Istanbul, the American University of Beirut….We made many friends in the Middle East by educating children there, I’ll tell them.)

By 7:30, the empty streets seem more crowded and bustling than ever. The usual rhythm before Ramadan was that shops would be open from 10-2, then again from 5-10, so evening shopping is common. But now the hours seem to have changed, so that everything is closed, all the shops shuttered, and streets remarkably quiet between 6 and 7:30. Our radiologist friend has changed his hours, working during Ramadan from 9 to 4 and then again from 9 to 11 in the evening.

What my women friends and I know as “second shift” becomes even more challenging. My friend Rima returns from teaching kindergarten around 3:30. She hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since 4:45 a.m. Three of her four children are fasting and hungry, and she still needs to get them settled, help with homework and cook iftar dinner before the sun sets around 6:20. She is a terrific cook, and the evenings we have eaten at her table during Ramadan, she has served soup and at least two main courses. After dinner, it’s the first tea and coffee of her day, which won’t end until around 11:30. The next begins a few hours later.

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A number of friends have urged me to watch Bab al-Harah, a special TV series created to play every evening during Ramadan at 9. A combination soap opera/costume drama, it is set in French-occupied Syria. The huge cast of characters speaks in Syrian dialect, and the plot is quite complex, with a number of sub-plots and romantic entanglements. Although the intended audience is clearly Syrian, the advertising sponsors (large multinationals Coca Cola, Maggia, Ferro Rocher) seem to reflect tastes further south. Like in the afternoon soaps, the ideal male portrayed in commercials is tall, dark, handsome, and smiling, playing with his children and winking at his beautiful wife, who always has spectacularly long and flowing hair. He wears an immaculate long white robe and white headcovering, not the Syrian version. I think I need to tape some of the TV commercials here to give my students a sense of what is considered attractive. The equivalent of a public service announcement airs at least twice during each episode, of a family sitting down to break the fast together when two sons look out the windown and notice a man sitting alone on the street. They consult with their father, who nods as the boys hurry downstairs to bring the lone neighbor/stranger to the table. The newcomer is shown at the end in thankful prayer. 

(Thanks very much to Russell for his help posting the audio.)

October 7, 2007 at 7:05 am 3 comments

Che and Bashar

In honor of today’s BBC’s story on images of Che, here is my current favorite, from a Christian-owned sweet shop in Aleppo (with a reputation for the best ice cream in the city). In the middle is Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

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Che images were ubiquitous throughout Morocco.   From the coastal town of Essouira: 

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From Casablanca: chesmall.jpg

In Syria, the most common images are of Bashar Assad, the President.

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While in Morocco images of the King portray him engaging in an activity related to the theme of the establishment displaying the photograph (often with his wife or a child), Bashar’s photographs are usually only pictures of his head. He is often shown with his father or his deceased brother, very rarely with his wife and children.

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Still, the photos can be displayed in fascinating ways.

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October 6, 2007 at 8:47 am 4 comments

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