What to Learn—or Not—from Early Drafts of History

What to Learn—or Not—from Early Drafts of History

This is a review piece I did for the Cairo Review, looking at three different books on the "Arab Spring" by Marc Lynch, Tarek Ramadan, and Marwan Bishara. I actually have read or at least leafed through about 6-7 books on the Arab spring. As historical books, I find them all wanting — they do not offer a clearer picture of what happened than what an attentive observer who followed the media can garner. I am still waiting for a Ten Days That Shook The World on any single uprising. 

Lynch's book is most useful, because he has thought more about the area where he can contribute an original analysis, on the question of media and the "Arab public sphere." Ramadan's book is at times fascinating and at other infuriating, he appears to not quite know what to make of what happened and a conspiratorial tone is present throughout the book. Bishara's book was disappointing, because I liked his book on Palestine, but mostly because it's quite messy. But there is worse, I read Hamid Dabashi's book and while it will please the academic left is offers far too many grand narrative about the Arab Spring as a challenge to capitalism and break with the neocolonial order. I debated Dabashi at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London last year, a very lefty place, and I thought his take on Libya (imperial intervention) was simplistic, ignoring that many Libyans called for just such an intervention simply because it doesn't sit well with his political convictions. 

I recommend you read another review, this time of six "Arab Spring" books, by our friend Maria Golia in the TLS; she offers different takes than mine. 

Also, if you're interested in reading these books, please order them through the links below to support this site.

Cairo 2050, Desert Fantasia

Freddy Deknatel reviews David Sims' Understanding Cairo in the LARB:
This past August in Heliopolis, the Cairo suburb built over desert by a Belgian industrialist in 1905, I sat in an architect’s office, a place called Cube Architectural Consultants, and heard a glowing, impromptu presentation on “Cairo 2050.” Cairo 2050 is a series of outlandish master plans and megaprojects for Egypt’s capital that the regime of Hosni Mubarak began promoting in 2008, with the help of the United Nations and the Japanese government. Its future, an earnest architect informed me gently, was “uncertain in the new Egypt.”

Imagine Dubai in the Nile Valley, if instead of building it on empty sand, futurist skyscrapers and business parks rose over what are now the packed, informal neighborhoods that today house the majority of Cairo’s estimated 17 million people. This authoritarian, outsized development “vision” would involve relocating millions to the furthest edges of the desert — areas banally termed “new housing extensions” — to make way for “10 star” hotels, huge parks, “residential touristic compounds,” and landing-strip-sized boulevards lined with a monotony of towers. It’s unlikely to happen in an Egypt after Mubarak — if it was ever possible at all, given budgets and popular resistance. Still, Cairo 2050 offers a glimpse at the Egyptian government’s approach to urban planning and policy. As David Sims, an economist and consultant who has worked in Cairo since 1974, writes in Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, the Cairo 2050 project represents “a continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams” on the part of “government planners and their consultants.”
Great review of a great book.

In LRB: Is there a Libya?

 

I have a new review of the two books above, on Libya's 20th-century history, out in the London Review of Books (subscription). I really recommend both of the books above if you want some background to the ongoing civil war, they're both excellent. Vandewalle focuses on the creation of Libya, in terms of its establishment as a state but also the experimentation Qadhafi conducted. Martinez focuses on the Qadhafi era and provides a condensed overview of the transformation of Libya from a revolutionary state to a mafia state.

Here's an excerpt from the end of the (long) review:

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Book review: The Puppet

I just reviewed The Puppet, by Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al-Koni (recently translated by University of Texas Press). I'm a great admirer of Al-Koni's work but was not particularly impressed with this book:

Perhaps one of the reasons The Puppet disappoints is that, for the most part, it doesn't take place in the desert. The novel is the middle instalment of a three-part trilogy al-Koni penned in the late 1990s, charting the decline and moral corruption of a nomadic tribe after its settlement in an oasis and the subsequent shift towards more sedentary and commercial ways. The puppet of the title is the would-be leader Aghulli, who is manipulated and betrayed by the tribe's noblemen and traders.

In his introduction, the translator William M Hutchins (who has translated al-Koni's Anubis and The Seven Veils of Seth, as well as Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy) connects al-Koni's work to the medieval Arab sociologist Ibn Khaldoun's theory of cyclical social expansion and disintegration. The book is also reminiscent of the Saudi writer Abdul-Rahman Munif's masterful Cities of Salt trilogy, which charts - with much greater nuance and historical specificity - the disorienting transformation of a nomadic population into a sedentary work force.

The rot of society, the temptations of settled and "civilised" life - as opposed to the purity of the traditional nomadic existence - is a recurring theme in al-Koni's work. In The Bleeding of the Stone, the shepherd Asouf lives as a hermit in the mountains. The arrival of two modern hunters represents the eruption of human evil into his innocent natural world. In Gold Dust, the hero chooses his camel companion over his family and reputation. The opposition between the corrupting demands of society and nomadic freedom is romantic and sometimes simplistic, but al-Koni imbues his characters' longing for the desert as a spiritual homeland with pathos and urgency.

The Puppet unfortunately retreads this familiar territory without adding anything new. There is no tension about the oasis' future, no ambiguity over the characters' natures and motivations. One of the general charms of al-Koni's work is that his characters are both archetypal and sui generis. Here, they are just archetypes: the puppet, the hero, the merchant, the lover.

Nonetheless, this is a writer very much worth discovering. There are several other works by Al-Koni available in English and I'd recommend starting there (in particular with The Bleeding of the Stone). 

     


Lynch on Berman

Marc Lynch has a fantastic essay review of Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals up on Foreign Affairs. He goes on at length on how Berman misses the point of what Islamists like Tariq Ramadan are about:

Berman gets Ramadan's struggle backward. Ramadan's primary adversaries are not liberals in the West but rather literalistic Salafists whose ideas are ascendant in Muslim communities from Egypt and the Persian Gulf to western Europe. For Salafists, a movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood is too political, too accepting of civil institutions, and insufficiently attentive to the formalistic and public rituals of Islam. They urge Muslims to separate from Western societies in favor of their own allegedly pure Islamic enclaves. The Muslim Brotherhood has encouraged women to wear the veil, but only so that they can demonstrate virtue while in universities and the workplace. The Salafists, meanwhile, want women at home and strictly segregated from men. True liberals should prefer Ramadan because he offers a model for Muslims of integration as full citizens at a time when powerful forces are instead pushing for isolation and literalism.

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Review: A Mosque in Munich

 

My review of Ian Johnson's recent book A Mosque in Munich is out in The National's Review. I enjoyed the book's multi-tiered history, notably its starting point among Central Asian Muslims who joined Nazi Germany to fight against the Soviet Union and the background of some of the characters who would later dominate the Munich Islamic Center who were closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Said Ramadan, father of Tariq, and the famous MB financier Youssef Nada (who we learn has an amusing obsession with processed cheese, which he exported from Europe to Libya in the 1970s with the winning argument that it was less messy than oily canned tuna and thus idea to help students keep their textbooks clean.)

For these reasons alone it's worth a read, which is why it's disappointing that Johnson's view of Islamism is rather skewed and appears chiefly informed by right-wing sources, which cause him to over-emphasize the "Islamofascist" view of things. Here's the last part of my review:

As interesting as this all is, a major flaw of A Mosque in Munich lies in its superficial treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in general. The ideological convergence between the Nazis and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is overstated, notably in their hostility to Jews. It is true that Nazi anti-Semitism found a willing audience among the Brothers and that Germany in the 1930s and 1940s played an important role in disseminating European anti-Semitism in Egypt. But the Brothers were not the only group that lent a willing ear; one of their rivals at the time was the Misr al-Fatah (Young Egypt) group, which like fascist sympathisers in Europe and the Americas found much to admire in Hitler’s movement. The Brothers’ anti-Semitism certainly existed, but it was hardly the group’s top ideological priority, alongside anti-colonialism, as Johnson suggests: surely their project for a Muslim renewal came before that.

There is a similar lack of nuance in Johnson’s understanding of Islamism – which he defines early on as “not the ancient religion of Islam but a highly politicised and violent system of ideas that creates the milieu for terrorism.” Just as Central Asian refugees’ nationalism embraced Islam as a cultural marker of identity, groups like the Muslim Brothers have been marked as much by nationalism as much as theology. Furthermore, they have not been intellectually static, having for instance abandoned founder Hassan al-Banna’s rejection of partisan life and embraced electoral, rather than vanguard, politics. To paint the Brotherhood merely as a precursor of al Qa’eda, an argument usually made by those with an ideological axe to grind, is profoundly misleading, no matter how unpleasant some of its views may be.

One argument that runs through much of the book is a warning against Western engagement of Islamists, an idea popularised in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks as a way to recruit “moderate” Islamists against the nihilism of salafist jihadist groups like al Qa’eda. The Brothers have actually needed no such encouragement to have a public tiff with al Qa’eda’s Ayman Zawahri, who hates the Brothers as much he does the “Crusaders”. But if Johnson makes a good point in cautioning against paying undue attention to the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe – where it is after all a vanguard group that is not necessarily representative of the European Muslim experience – he often does so for the wrong reason. A more compelling reason for governments and spies to steer clear of the manipulation of religious groups is that, as the West has learned at a great cost, it can so often backfire.

Dining with al-Qaeda

I've just started reading Hugh Pope's journalistic memoirs, Dining with al-Qaeda. It's really good fun so far, and the second chapter — covering Pope's first job with UPI in Beirut — has a great story of his disenchantment with Robert Fisk, who always magically had more exciting stories than anyone else. His secret: he made them up. Pope went to great length later on to investigate claims by Fisk, in his Independent reporting and in his magnum opus, about Turkish "starving" of Kurds that nearly got the Independent banned there and caused Turkish authorities to blow a gasket, almost kicking Pope (a lowly stringer for the Indie) out of the country. He's calls all this "Fiskery" — others call it Fisking, especially when Fisk goes after individuals — and while he's not bitter about it there's a real sense of disappointment that Fisk jeopardizes his position of authority and emotional power on these made-up stories. He writes:

Fisk's writings, more than almost anyone else's, manages to step around the cautious conventions of Middle Eastern reporting and drive home at an emotional level the injustices of the dictators and the cruel side of U.S. policies  But facts are facts, indispensable legitimizing agents of readers' emotional and political responses. 

The thing is, Fisk's over-active imagination makes it easy for Pope to find holes in his reporting, for instance when Fisk refers to getting onboard an Apache helicopter even though they don't have passenger seats. If you hang around journalists with several decades of Middle East experience, particularly ones who were in Beirut in the 1980s, you keep hearing these stories again and again about Fisk. It's a great, great shame that this otherwise powerful writer keeps on doing that.

In any case, do pick up this book, especially if you have an interest either in foreign correspondents in the Middle East. I'll do a proper review later, but I see that the Economist loved it (and if you read the review, you'll note a mea culpa about the paper's support for the Iraq war at the bottom).

The marriage crisis

I just wrote about the scholarly book "For Better, for Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt" for Foreign Policy. Here's the intro:

In 1932, Fikri Abaza, a young Egyptian editor and lawyer from a prominent family, gave a lecture at the American University in Cairo in which he announced his intention of remaining a bachelor. He had proposed to four women, he said, and four fathers had rejected his proposals on financial grounds.

The next day, the young man's lecture was the "talk of the town," American University in Cairo professor Hanan Kholoussy tells us in her book For Better, For Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt. Yet Abaza's complaint was hardly unprecedented. As Kholoussy documents, it was emblematic of a debate that raged in early 20th-century Egypt around the supposed increase in bachelors. That debate has striking parallels with one going on today in Egypt, where another "marriage crisis" is supposedly looming -- one in which it is the rising number of "spinsters" that most troubles observers.

I say supposedly because in both cases, "crisis" may be an overstatement. The "marriage crisis" of today, like the one back then, might have more to do with public anxiety over sweeping societal changes than any catastrophic threat to the institution of marriage.

Reading about the earlier crisis immediately put me in mind of the current one, and of the hit blog-turned-book عايزة اتجوز ("I Want To Get Married"), which I've reviewed before. Of course, my point isn't too deny that there aren't serious obstacles to marriage and serious consequences to delayed marriage. But is a phenomenon that dates back a hundred years a "crisis"? And today, is the concern over the allegedly rising number of unmarried women really warranted? 

Back when I was reviewing "I Want to Get Married," I spent a lot of time on various Facebook groups established by women to fight the stigma of being "a spinster," or just discuss the options and preoccupations of single women. I translated some exchanges (very roughly) because I thought they were pretty interesting. I'm posting them after the jump. 

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Links for 11.16.09 to 11.18.09

ضغوط أمريكية لزيادة الغاز المصري لإسرائيل وخفض أسعاره - بوابة الشروق | al-Shurouk reports that US is asking Egypt to increase gas deliveries to Israel, and at cheaper price. ✪ US rebukes Israel on settlement plans - Yahoo! News | ... but will do nothing about it. ✪ Nubian fury at 'monkey' lyric of Arab pop star Haifa Wehbe | World news | The Guardian | The Haifa Wehbe / Nubian scandal. ✪ The Obama admin is selling the peace process, but the press is not buying it. | Phil Weiss has surreal transcript from State Dept. over new settlements. ✪ Readability - An Arc90 Lab Experiment | Very nice bookmarklet for reading long articles. ✪ Palestinians say they will ask UN to recognise state - Yahoo! News | Doesn't the UN already accept previous resolutions with the 1967 line? Regarding my previous comment on US senators' call for a veto, the Palestinians do appear to want to take it to UNSC, not UNGA. ✪ Le Figaro - Conjoncture : Le grand Monopoly mondial des terres agricoles | Nice chart accompanying this article on the sale of arable land to food importing nations. ✪ U.S. "would veto" Palestinian state move: Senators - Yahoo! News | I suspect recognition by the UN would take place by the General Assembly, not the Security Council, so that turncoat Lieberman can take his veto and shove it... ✪ The pro-Israel lobby in Britain: full text | openDemocracy | Report on UK Israel lobby by documentary filmmaker Peter Oborne. ✪ FT.com - Inflation rears its head again in Egypt | Mostly affecting food prices ahead of Eid. ✪ Egyptian Blogger Beaten | "During the mayhem of a major soccer match, Egyptian blogger Kareem el-Shae’r was kidnapped and beaten. El-Shae’r moderates the Free Egypt blog and is a member of Ayman Nour’s el-Ghad party and the April 6 Youth movement. For his activism, el-Shae’r has been arrested several times and beaten before. The Egyptian interior ministry refused to comment on the incident." ✪ Gaddafi hires 200 young Italian women – to convert them to Islam | And tries to convert them to Islam. ✪ Israel must end Gaza blockade, evictions, alleged abuse of Palestinian children - Ban | "Israel should end the blockade of Gaza, cease evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes, and ensure that the rights of children are respected and that all allegations of torture and ill-treatment are promptly investigated and perpetrators prosecuted, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in an annual report released today." ✪ Yemen Finds Dreamland of Architecture - NYTimes.com | On Yemen's traditional architecture. ✪ The Arabs by Eugene Rogan | Book review | The Guardian | Robert Irwin reviews this book, which I am currently reading.
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Links for 09.13.09

Unwanted Guests | The Brave New World of Gamal's ruling party: "Have you noticed that this Ramadan many of the talk shows guests in Egyptian channels are from NDP ministers, businessmen, journalists and men who did not use to appear on TV ??" ✪ Israel Timeline: The Long Way Home | NYT's timeline of Jewish-US-Israel-Oslo history. Makes no reference to pre-48 Palestinian politics, Arab revolt, etc. ✪ Other Inscriptions: Sexual Difference and History Writing between Futures Past and Present | A review of Joseph Massad's "Desiring Arabs" finds that "It is perhaps in the argument about the Gay International that the book is both made and unmade." ✪ Daily News Egypt - Azhar Scholars Say No To Using Quranic Verses As Logos | Move in part targets Muslim Brothers. ✪ Navigating Egypt's bureaucracy with a child in tow - AP | Paul Schemm on the Mugamma.
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Links for 09.10.09 to 09.11.09

Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | Made to measure | Interesting Amira Howeidy article on Egyptian television, notably Naguib Sawiris' face-off with Ibrahim Eissa on the former's new TV show! ✪ Khaleej Times Online - Egypt school start delayed week in swine flu fear | While swine flu infections are spreading, this decision may be as much as leaving school until after Ramadan than a medical threat, IMHO. ✪ Reuters AlertNet - Egypt: Stop Killing Migrants in Sinai | HRW Statement on shootings at the border with Israel, referencing recent al-Masri al-Youm article with killer quotes on issue. ✪ Democracy, Tunisian style | Brian Whitaker | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk | Brian Whitaker engages in my favorite sport, Tunisia-bashing, pointing that Tunisia's much-vaunted stability comes at the price of a presidency for life. ✪ Dennis Ross, Bill Burns, Berman talk Iran with Jewish leaders conference (UPDATED) - Laura Rozen - POLITICO.com | For big push on Iran sanctions (and more?) by Jewish-American orgs. ✪ Last gasp for global Islam « Prospect Magazine | Review of a "woe-is-us" book by former Iraqi PM Ayad Allawi on Islam. ✪ aktub | Free Arabic typing tutor.
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Review: A Child in Palestine

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Review of A Child in Palestine: The Cartoons of Naji al-Ali
Published by Verso, 2009
Introduction by Joe Sacco
Text by Abdul Hadi Ayyad



Most people familiar with Palestine are familiar with the work of Naji al-Ali, the creator of Hanthala. The cartoon of a ten-year-old refugee boy facing away from us, his hands behind his back, is the ubiquitous visual symbol of Palestinians expelled from their homeland and living in camps, silently witnessing the tragedies of Palestinian life since 1948. You can find al-Ali's iconic drawing spraypainted on walls not just around the Arab world but in European and American cities, as a pendant worn around the neck, on tee-shirts, sewn into keffiyehs, animated and all over the internet, and, just for example, on a cut-out sheet of paper taped to the back of the laptop on which I write this essay. Within Palestine and the Palestine solidarity movement internationally, Naji al-Ali's presence is equal perhaps to that only of Mahmoud Darwish as a cultural unifier and voice for the voiceless.
 Naji Al-Ali Israeli tank shoots dove.jpgSo it is shocking to consider that it is not until now, 22 years after al-Ali was assassinated in London (he was shot by unknown assailants on July 22, 1987) and more than 48 years since he was first published by Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani, that the first English-language collection of his cartoons is making its appearance. Despite several online galleries, tracking Hanthala down in print in the West has been quite difficult. Therefore we can all thank and praise the editors of Verso Books for their decision to create a slender introduction to al-Ali's graphic work for the Angolphone world. They have selected 100 cartoons and arranged them roughly by theme in five chapters: Palestine; Human Rights; US Dominance, Oil and Arab Collusion; the Peace Process; and Resistance. There is a brief introduction to each chapter, and each cartoon is accompanied with a short caption providing translation and explanation. The whole book is furnished with an introduction by cartoonist Joe Sacco, probably al-Ali's heir as the single person most associated with the crossroads of Palestine and comics. cartoon_naji_al-ali.gif
 
The work itself is as powerful as one can imagine for a cartoonist who's voice was so threatening to those in power that he had to be silenced with bullets. These are not funny cartoons, not even in the sense of the droll sarcasm associated with editorial cartoons in America. Al-Ali's work is replete with bloody struggle against ghoulish enemies; maimed bodies of children and bullet-ridden adults are wept over by wailing mourners under skies of solid inky black. It is frequently black night in Hanthala's world, without stars and only a crescent moon to see by. Bodies and landscapes transform surreally into bullets, keys, barbed wire, bombs. The leaders of the Arab world become grotesque slugs, fat and corrupt; the Israelis are vampiric goblins. The recurring representative  of the "commoner," the Arab peasant or worker who becomes a militant is stabbed, hung, and shot all the while a little boy watches silently (usually). They are a cri de couer of horror and resolute endurance. 
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Technically, al-Ali's line is usually called "simple" and at times even "crude"--shaky, without variation in weight, using cross hatching or grey ink wash to give the figures roundess and shading without detailed rendering. This style is not dissimilar to other cartoonists and animators internationally of al-Ali's generation working in the 60s and 70s, especially those associated with the underground or hippie movements in the West, like Fred Wolf or Bruno Bozzetto. But the power of al-Ali's work can be seen in the endless creative variation of the visual metaphors used. Recurring elements are recombined and reimagined to produce inventive new ways of reiterating al-Ali's consistent and unwavering message, which is as stark as his images. The Arab commoner (Palestinian, Lebanese, or other), man and woman, thin and starving, is faced with multiple enemies who are in fact in collusion: the U.S., the Israeli soldier, and the leaders and "fat cats" of the Arab world (whether dressed traditionally or in Western business suits), who will always betray the armed struggle that is necessary for Palestine to be reclaimed. An analysis of the Arab ruler's simultaneous repression of their people, dependence on oil wealth and obeisance to the U.S. is neatly summarized in a single, striking, wordless composition. 
 NajiAlAliPalestine.jpg 
Al-Ali's images also provides a quick and easy way to debunk some common Western myths about the history of the struggle for Palestine. Human rights and democratic discourse were a part of Palestinian demands from the beginning, and were blocked by the Israelis. The objection to settlements is not new or recent, but dates to their inception in the 1970s, and from the beginning were recognized as an obstacle to peace by al-Ali. The Arab states and the leaders of the PLO are not "moderate" but in fact capitulate too readily to U.S. and Israel demands and have been doing so for decades. 

Still, one is left feeling that this book only represents the barest beginning for exposing al-Ali and Hanthala to English-speaking audiences. Obviously, 100 cartoons selected from a body of work that includes tens of thousands can only serve to pique the interest of those seriously interested in Naji al-Ali. Strangely, Verso did not credit an editor for this collection, nor is any explanation or rationale for the choice of cartoons given. I know from browsing Arabic-language collections, for example, that many of al-Ali's cartoons do include much text and dialogue despite his reputation as a wordless cartoonist for largely illiterate masses. One can only presume that these cartoons were left out for ease of translation, but they are precisely the ones least accessible to the non-Arabic audience.
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More importantly, and disappointingly, there is no critical biography of al-Ali or attempt at cogent analysis. The written material, credited to Abdul Hadi Ayyad only in the copyright errata inside the book, is generic and prone to platitudes and hagiography, and no more informative about al-Ali's life or work than his Wikipedia entry (actually slightly less). Its attempts at translation and explanation for the cartoons frequently overdetermine what appears to me to be deliberate ambiguity of images. I am left feeling that one of the most influential  and important cartoonists of the second half of the 20th century, of the non-English-speaking world, and of the global decolonization struggle, is still without a compendium that will be of use to more than casually interested audiences.  One hopes that with enough interest in this book it will be forthcoming. 


Ethan Heitner is a member of Adalah-NY: The Coalition For Middle East Justice and a student of cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He has previously written for TomPaine.com and Cairo magazine. His cartoons will be available at www.freedomfunnies.com soon.
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Middle East diplomacy: Myths, illusions and peace | The Economist

Middle East diplomacy: Myths, illusions and peace | The Economist
A blandly positive review of Dennis Ross and David Makovsky's new book (which takes an opposite position on engagement with Iran than official Obama policy, which this review does not note), in which they argue against talking to "the Khamas and the Khizbullah".
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