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In the Name of God بسم الله
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Punctuated sunrise [10,000th post]

Haji 2003


It's taken me nearly 15 years to get to 10,000 posts, so I thought I'd post something special.

I remember the cold. I think it was the first time in my life that keeping warm was a struggle. Shafts of cold air channelled in through a train not designed to keep it out. Arriving at Amritsar station, there was some relief. I remember the shouts of ‘garam chai’ (hot tea) rising above the cacophony of engines, whistles, and general yells. This trip was the first time that I was allowed to drink tea. At home in London, tea was an adult’s drink, and there simply had been no occasion or need to drink it. Here at Amritsar station, in Indian Punjab, during the middle of the night, I was allowed to drink the strong, sugary hot tea and eat the hard-boiled eggs that the hawkers were selling. It was only many years later that I appreciated the business nous of selling hard-boiled eggs. Pre-packaged and ready to eat, what could be easier for a hawker to sell? 

Some years later standing in the cold in the school playground would help me appreciate all the more as I read of Ivan Denisovich’s battles against hunger and cold in Solzhenitsyn’s account of life in a Soviet gulag. And many years later still this way of experiencing the novel would prompt me to encourage my daughter to read Denisovich’s account while she was fasting for Ramadan.

Standing on the platform with my snacks, amongst the flow of passengers and porters, I took in the destination signs on the different trains, heading off to distant parts of a sub-continent. Perhaps my diminutive 10-year-old perspective added to the perceived size of the place; I would not be surprised. The porters wore a uniform, after a fashion. For each one of them, the acquisition of a customer provided a sense of purpose and superiority of status which would be underlined by rearranging their head-covering to better protect themselves from the luggage that would soon be loaded on top. On this trip, I was just a spectator to the rituals of engaging porters. When old enough to be a participant, I’d find it a difficult balance between exploiting and being exploited. 

At last, it was time to get back in the train and cover myself as best I could with an assortment of clothes, waiting for the morning to bring some respite. Some mornings were awesome, the rising rays of sunshine spread across green fields, punctuated by trees and seemingly in rhythm with the regular beat of the wheels on the track. At some point, I’d have to go to the toilet, which was a balancing act of the toothbrush, toothpaste and some attempt at washing and keeping my distance from the ubiquitous hole in the floor.

At first, I had distanced myself from the perceived filth of the train and had tried to keep myself to as small an area as possible. But as the hours passed my comfort zone expanded until I was even comfortable lying full stretch on the wooden slats of the third-class benches. As the miles passed the squalor, even that of the toilet, was no longer alien but something to which I had become habituated. Though I still haven’t managed to achieve the level of equanimity displayed by a fellow airline passenger who went into the toilet barefoot. As someone else commented on this practice, the liquid on the floor isn’t water.

Safety was and still is a distant concept when it comes to Indian railways, best observed by the person at risk. In both my childhood travel and in recent times safety seems to lie, for example, in keeping your distance from the open door of the railway carriage. As a 30-year-old on a train from Chennai to Hyderabad and no parent to hold me back, I was able to lean out to take videos and photos to rekindle childhood memories of fleeting Indian railway stations. The observation stimulated the same sense of passing through and catching the moment in local lives. What I was not able to recapture in a photo was the rising dawn that I had observed in my childhood journey. 

On that childhood trip, I had brought a couple of books with me, which I still remember. There was ‘Tarka the Otter’ and Joy Adamson’s ‘Home Free’. I can’t remember which one was more boring, but Tarka does stand out as being particularly good for being interrupted by the least remarkable scenery outside. The same can’t be said for the novel I discovered at our destination in Lucknow. Our host had a copy of ‘War of the Worlds’ the title itself was captivating and the story engrossing. I remember sitting in various locations of the house working my way through the invasion.

A few years before this train trip, aged six, I had seen a book titled ‘War and Peace’ sitting on another relative’s bookshelf in London and that also seemed to suggest excitement within. I wasn’t there long enough to pick it up, but a few years after the Indian trip, when I was about 14 I made a point about buying the novel but the enthusiasm stimulated by the title was very, very quickly dimmed by the story within. I decided to grind down the story by reading a page a day. It took a couple of years, but I managed to finish it. 

‘War of the Worlds’ was the starting point, since then I’ve come to associate books with the places where I read them: Sterling Seagrave’s, ‘Dragon Lady’ accompanied me on a trip to Singapore and provided the incentive to visit China. 

Aged 17, I was transiting between two Paris metro stations, on a trip to Aix-en-Provence when a kindly gentleman took pity on me and helped me with my overweight suitcase containing Lipsey’s tome ‘Positive Economics’. Amongst other books, this would be entirely superfluous to my needs at the French language summer course I was about to attend. Even in adulthood, I have never quite managed to balance taking on travels work-related things that I would use as opposed to those I might regret not having brought with me. Laptops and cloud storage have meant that that personal deficiency no longer has to be addressed.

This had been a unique trip in some different ways. My mother was a widow, and we did not have a great deal of money. I hadn’t been abroad between the ages of 5 and 10. But travelling third class on Indian railways and staying with relatives wherever we went meant that this trip was fairly affordable. So, it was not unreasonable that my mother was not too impressed with what took place when we arrived at the border crossing between India and Pakistan sometime earlier. 

When we got off the train for the immigration check, there was a French lady in front of us, and she and my mother started speaking. Quite proudly my mother presented me as someone who could speak French. The unexpectedness and ambition of the challenge meant that I was completely dumbstruck. For a good few hours to follow, I’d hear my mother’s lament about how much she had paid for a French Linguaphone course for me, which was well beyond our means. I had assured her that this would be a great aid to my linguistic efforts, the advertisement promised as much, and I had waited with great anticipation for its arrival. Finally, one day there was a brown rectangular package waiting for me outside our house. But for a 10-year-old to master the use of the different texts and develop some semblance of a study plan was quite an ambition and one for which my abilities and self-discipline fell seriously short. 

There must have been a subconscious notion that the pursuit of academic endeavours would give access to budgets otherwise unavailable. A few years later I’d decide that photography O’level would offer a greater chance of scholastic success. Once more I was lured in by a mixture of an economy with the truth by the people promoting the offering and my imaginative willingness to fill in the blanks. First, there was a need to buy an SLR camera, and as time passed it became obvious that the necessary skills to process photos could not be acquired in the few minutes, I’d have to be in front of the enlarger at school every week. An investment in a darkroom became a necessity. This time self-discipline wasn’t needed to drive study. I had discovered a subject for which I had a passion. I’d end up spending many happy hours in the darkroom, well past midnight channelling Diane Arbus and Cartier Bresson. By the time a school trip to the Soviet Union took place, I was reasonably competent and still have some of the photos of that visit. 

Looking back, both the camera and the Soviet trip itself seemed like a judicious investment in an unrepeatable experience, a few years later the USSR would cease to exist. This lesson in political upheaval was to prove particularly useful before a trip with my wife and kids to Syria. My brother had borrowed my video camera and forgotten to return it, and the realisation only came in the departure lounge at Heathrow. Buying a video camera specifically for one trip seemed like an extravagance, but soon afterward the civil war broke out. I have clips of my daughter walking amongst a temple to the Phoenician god Melquart, I wonder whether ISIS have left it standing?

For the India trip, in contrast, there was no camera at all. As I had left London, I had been given a compact camera, which refused to show any sign of working for the duration of the trip and which it had not been possible to repair either. So, I have no tangible images of the entire trip. Whether that has forced me to try harder to remember over the years or whether I have become better at embellishing the details, I don’t know. I do know that on one review I have left on Tripadvisor, I have commented that the prohibition on taking cameras into a particular museum means that visitors are more likely to pay attention to the exhibits in their own right rather than as fodder for an Instagram feed. 

From Lucknow, we went to my mother’s ancestral home in Fatehpur. We drove through the potholed roads of Uttar Pradesh, slowed even further by overladen agricultural traffic. We arrived in the evening, and all I could sense was that we entered a courtyard and then another. This was quite different to any home I had visited previously. Morning brought a much better sense of the place. The hallmark of the building was its twin towers, installed a couple of hundred years previously, with permission from the rulers of Awadh, since they were considered a mark of royalty and my maternal ancestor’s position as a tutor to the princely household earned him the favour to use them. These rose above the building and the surrounding town. Beneath them was the building’s mosque entered through several large wooden doors, several steps then led to a large courtyard at the other end of which was a narrow staircase leading to some apartments on the first floor. The men of the family had offices cum bedrooms on the ground floor of the courtyard, and their families slept in apartments on the first floor. Any tangible evidence of conjugal relations, such as a couples’ double bed was considered impolite. There were also apartments on the ground floor. To the right of the towers was the entrance to the building and beyond that the disused stables, a further courtyard and then the exit to the main street of the town.

In Fatehpur, there were no books, or indeed television, but there was exploring the building, listening to stories, fishing and staring at a night sky whose lights I had never previously seen in such profusion. Frustratingly, the shot guns could only be seen and not touched, in fact, I wasn’t allowed to use the air gun. Even the fishing wasn’t with actual rods, but the sensation of the lightness of a short stick with a bait at the end being replaced with the sensation of something tugging at the end of a line remains vivid.

Exploring the old building would be an experience for someone who had lived in a terraced house all his life. Playing cricket in its central square meant that we had room for both wickets and the ability to run between them, while back in London the garden lawn barely stretched a couple of metres and in our London suburb kids just didn’t play on the street. And then there was the dungeon. Like quite a bit of what we were to experience the name or prior description didn’t quite live up to schoolboy expectations. The Urdu word they all used was ‘mahal’ as in Taj Mahal, but you could hardly describe it as a palace. The dungeon itself was no more threatening than a basement room.  

The family mahal stood in contrast to the Taj that we had visited on a side-trip while staying in Delhi with an uncle. The sense of serenity reflected off the colour and curves remains in my mind. The sound track no longer remains, perhaps the size of the place drowned out the chattering throngs. The image is now distilled from the range of different perspectives: the head-on view as captured by those photographers who pictured Princess Diana in the foreground, to my standing under the columns staring up and being up close to the marble.

While the Taj was glorious enough to represent the nation and thus rose above its religious and ethnic antecedents, this was not the case with the family mahal. The condition of this modest building perfectly reflected the state of the community it housed: elegant decrepitude with only a memory of former glories. While the building’s statelier past was visible from the remnants of the structure, so the stories passed by each generation reminded subsequent ones of the lifestyle they had been denied because of opportunities missed and talents wasted. 

Such was the problem they were facing that even acts of renovation seemed like destruction, where older styles of building work and decoration were replaced with more functional and cheaper modern ones. My youthful displeasure at the erasure of history would later be tempered by a more mature realisation of the practicalities of habitat when I had the chimney breasts and fireplaces of my Victorian house removed to create more space. 

Occasionally the person who had hosted us in Lucknow would visit. He was a local politician and would arrive in a stately Ambassador car or even more excitingly a ‘jeep’. Not an eponymous one of course, but I still remember the fact that it had gun racks. Both that vehicle and the Ambassador were made in India. This was India before trade liberalisation. Not as familiar a place as the Pakistan we had travelled through to get here. Pakistan had the welcome familiarity of brands that I had grown up with; the ketchup was Heinz and the coke a recognisably friendly white swoosh on a red background. Billboard and television advertising was reassuring. Here unfamiliar names came across as peculiar. Why would a cola be called ‘Thums Up?’. 

Such has been the irony of globalisation that a few weeks ago eating at Dishoom restaurant in London’s East End I saw the Thums Up logo once more. A symbol of rejecting western capitalism had itself become a brand, with a consumerist meaning, evoking a carbonated essence of India. 

Like all children of Asian immigrants on visits to their parents’ country of origin, I was also overwhelmed with the extensivity and density of familial connections. There were first cousins, second cousins, and quite a lot more complicated combinations, for which there are no words in English. Added to this, a matriarchal aunt could also be a cousin. My wife came up with a novel way of explaining one such relationship to me. “If that aunt were Mary Queen of Scots, your mum would be Elizabeth I”. Indeed, an artefact of such complex and inter-related ties was the obvious existence of rivalries, jealousies, and squabbles spanning generations. In England, my younger brother and I had been protected from this aspect of extended family life. The protection came at a price: we didn’t know how to deal with it at all. At the age of 10 this did not matter, but on future visits, it would become more significant and certainly by the time my brother and I reached marriageable age. For the time being, it was just nice that as I wandered from apartment to apartment in the mahal, everyone I met was a relative and I was too young to understand any political dimension of that relationship. It would also be in subsequent visits to the mahal, when I was older, that I’d appreciate the tensions with the communities who lived outside the mahal.

On my daily walks, I’d see hand powered sewing machines and food being prepared more laboriously than anything I had seen at home. The dirt floor did not afford the comfort of sitting cross legged and sitting on my haunches was not something my leg muscles were prepared for. Unlike the urban homes, I had come across in the sub-continent, the toilet here was a platform raised above the multi-coloured offerings beneath. So large was the place that any smells remained distant from any other rooms.

The cold had not left us in Fatehpur. At night, they would light braziers which were wonderful for bringing around family members, sitting together on the Indian style wooden beds, sharing each other’s warmth, stories and gossip. 






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Brother, that was an excellent read. Yes, I did read the whole of it, and I wish it did not stop here. I also learnt you were of Indian descent, always thought you were Persian.

You definitely have a talent to write and to transport people. I hope you keep going.

Edited by realizm

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On 11/18/2018 at 4:01 PM, realizm said:

I also learnt you were of Indian descent, always thought you were Persian.

On a good day people think I am Greek or even Roman, but usually, I am mistaken for a Persian. Thanks for your comments and reading all the way through!

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      For my emptiness to fill, making me whole.
      And for the rest of my life, to live on these tears,
      If you'd just end the waiting I've done for these years.
      Allahumma irzoqni ziyaratel Hussein ((عليه السلام).)
    • By Last Chance in Poems for the Ahlul Bayt
      The poets have written and the scholars have preached,
      Yet the value of Ali no understanding can reach,
      An eternity has passed and another will come,
      The Earth's ink could diminish and al tongues could go numb,
      Yet no heart of his lover is able to rest
      For this love of Ali remains trapped in their chest,
      No words can unlock it and no action can earn
      And through a million books, only a fraction they'd learn.
      What is this mystery that no mind can perceive?
      What lies in the depths of the souls that believe?
      What is the reason that they call us insane,
      When the essence of sanity with his love we gain?
      It is the man that no man understands,
      Save the last messenger to all of these lands,
      The Lion from whom the enemies would flee,
      The servant who would break his bread on his knee,
      The man who would cry out into a well,
      With secrets in his heart and no believer to tell.
      Which man speaks words like pearls from the heaven?
      Which light is this, followed by the other eleven?
      Which prince shares his progeny with a mistress unmatched?
      To which soul and which mind is all truth attached?
      This soul is the hero of Siffeen and Hunayn,
      The nurturing father of the pure Hassanain,
      The generous slave who bows while he gives,
      This is the man whose name always lives,
      Whose enemies' lives are wasted in vain,
      In countless attempts to have this gem slain.
      But what is this rarity that circles my mind?
      Makes me hear nothing and turns my eyes blind,
      So that his words are the only words that I see,
      And a servant of these words all hearts want to be.
      Which man is the line between falsehood and truth?
      Which warrior's courage stood unshaken since youth?
      The soldier who did not need his sword to slay,
      Only his novel of a name he would say,
      "Know that I am Ali" and the enemy inside would die,
      One strike and soon after, "Allahu Akbar" he would cry,
      He, whose shield had shielded his brother,
      A man like whom there has been no other,
      The seal of the Prophets and best of all men,
      …Inseparable now and inseparable then.
      The hero who lifted the gate of Khaybar,
      My master, Ali, my leader, Haidar,
      The half that Our Lady perfectly completed,
      By whose enemies the fires of hell are heated,
      The man who one night sold his soul to his Lord,
      And cried out in victory upon being struck by the sword,
      Sayyidi, Mawlai, Ameeri Ali,
      Ni3mel Ameer wa ni3mel Wali.
    • By Last Chance in Poems for the Ahlul Bayt
      Yesterday, they sent me a king,
      One whose praises they all seem to sing,
      He told me he could grant me some wealth,
      And if I served well, some more for my health,
      But with this king, I was not content,
      So him, like the others, away I sent.
      I met another who offered me fame,
      Said all the world's tongues could utter my name,
      All it would take was my obliging hand,
      And he'd turn my lowliness into something so grand,
      But with this king, I was not content,
      So him, like the others, away I sent.
      A third one arrived a fortnight before,
      Met my humble abode with a knock on my door,
      He told me he'd make my children my pride,
      And in a house of gold, he'd make me reside,
      But with this king, I was not content,
      So him, like the others, away I sent.
      Like this they kept coming and as always, they went,
      And my heart wished not to serve any king the world sent,
      And so in this frustration, I sought a way out,
      I went on a journey with my luggage of doubt,
      Perhaps I was too harsh on the kings that had come?
      Should I have listened a little to some?
      But now on this journey, it was too late,
      And to turn them away, it seemed was my fate.
      In the midst of this voyage I still had no goal,
      For I knew not where to find the cure for my soul,
      So I stopped for a while and stepped onto the ground,
      And a scent filled my heart with beauty profound,
      And as I walked on the sand to follow this scent,
      The weight on my shoulders seemed to relent,
      'Til I reached a sight that was ice to my eyes,
      In this heat of the sun under heaven's red skies.
      I saw a gold light where the sun hit the dome,
      And a red flag like a sign on the door of a home,
      And masses of servants running to their master inside,
      Where I thought the royals of this land would reside,
      But I looked again and saw no servants around,
      Only kings and queens in their dignity, crowned,
      So, confused, I asked where the servants might be,
      And one man told me that the servant was he,
      But another man came and said, "Servant? That's me,"
      Then another and another, and they all said the same,
      And soon every royal in that place made that claim.
      Finally, a woman told me the truth,
      She was the wisest and most modest of youth,
      She said that these people were not kings or queens,
      Until they had served her son through their means,
      She told me that his service turned slaves into kings,
      The way a goldsmith turns stones into rings,
      She showed me why other kings, I had turned down,
      Why each one was simply a slave in a gown-
      What king needs his servants and roams the low Earth?
      The true king's servants struggle to meet him since birth.
      Like a lost orphan who seeks a father's embrace,
      I'd serve all my life for the peace in that place,
      So here I stand, still waiting outside,
      And by his principals, I try to abide,
      So that maybe one day, we might finally meet,
      And this king of kings, I might humbly greet,
      And perhaps he might accept me as his,
      Maybe he'll turn my pain into bliss,
      For the servants of a king of kings feel no pain,
      The cure for their ailments is the love of Hussein ((عليه السلام)).
    • By Last Chance in Poems for the Ahlul Bayt
      In this short life I sought virtues and love,
      So I asked those who knew and those from above,
      They told me to go to a land of blessing and sorrow,
      The land in which no soul wants tomorrow,
      So I took on this journey and stepped onto this land,
      And I saw two shining domes standing upright and grand,
      But in my shame and my filth, I spoke just to the sand.
      I asked this sand what virtues she carried,
      What treasures and gems within her were buried,
      She told me that there were too many to count,
      The virtues were more than her grains in amount,
      So instead I began asking my questions one by one,
      From the sight of the moon 'til the rise of the sun.
      I asked, 'In all your years, what friendship have you seen?'
      She cried, 'Only I have witnessed what true friendship means.
      When Habib came sprinting to the side of my master,
      Could anyone have come to his aid any faster?
      This world knows nothing about the friendship I saw,
      For if they understood, they would have wept from its awe,
      No friendship exists like that of Habib and Hussain,
      Together they grew and together were slain.
      Tell me, which others do you know who had such love in their hearts?
      Which other man would come from such a distance apart?'
      I fell silent for no other name came to mind,
      No other such friendship was I able to find,
      So I asked her what she knew of the virtue of love,
      And she said, 'You see the attachment of a love stricken dove?
      That is nothing, for true love is only for Him,
      Not these petty desires that come and go on a whim,
      The woman who loved was the young newlywed,
      Who gave away to her Lord what all women dread,
      She bed her husband Wahab farewell as she cried,
      And a widow became of this heart broken bride.
      Tell me, which other young soul do you know,
      Who would give her husband away to a devil's sword blow?'
      Again, I fell silent, for I knew not such a soul,
      And my river of tears I was unable to control,
      I choked back my grief and asked her about youth,
      And she said, 'If only you'd witnessed this truth,
      The women had wailed when Qasim had gone,
      For it was Hassan again who had passed on,
      But nobody in this world can truly understand,
      Unless they saw Qasim in his new armour stand,
      And Awn and Mohammed bidding their mother goodbye,
      But if you had seen this, from grief you would die,
      And the arrow in the neck of the six month old rose,
      The blood that drenched his small, infant clothes,
      More blood than the milk he ever drank from his mother,
      Yet this soldier was the youngest amongst all of his brothers.
      Tell me, which other young men have you seen,
      Who sell their dreams for a reward that's unseen?
      Silence took over and I had no reply,
      Only the sense to lament and to cry,
      And then I asked, 'But what of their mothers?
      How could they see their sons killed by others?'
      Karbala wailed before she started to speak,
      Her words filled with sorrow and her voice very weak,
      'The mothers...I don't know where to begin,
      To put one above another would be a grave sin.
      I am no mother and still for years I have wept,
      These mothers, never again in peace have they slept,
      For which mother can rest when her son lies in a desert?
      No shroud and no grave and a bloodied red shirt.
      Which mother to weep for, I did not know,
      Rubab, who's Abdullah was only starting to grow?
      Or Layla who's Ali had been the chest of her dreams,
      Or the mother of Qasim, who's face with Hassan's light beams?
      Or Zainab who herself had not gotten to weep?
      And her tears in her heart, for Medina she'd keep.
      I know you know no mothers like these,
      So I will not ask you that question of ease.'
      My soul was torn between asking or not,
      For a spear of grief in my heart had been shot,
      But what sorrow was mine alongside of theirs?
      What grief do I carry next to what their soul bears?
      So I asked her the question that makes all hearts break,
      And her sobbing voice had started to shake,
      I asked her what loyalty she'd seen in this land,
      And she showed me the first dome that stood tall and grand,
      'No man has been loyal while Abbas's name lives,
      For the meaning of loyalty, Abbas's life gives,
      The father of virtues became the guard of Hussain,
      His eyes and his arms gone, and his body was slain,
      But I swear, oh visitor, this man is alive,
      Your Lord through His mercy made his great soul survive,
      For I have seen no one who leaves here distraught,
      Abbas carries any burden a visitor has brought,
      Through his own tears for the children, he wipes away yours,
      And the ailments of your life, this warrior cures.'
      My tears flowed and I craved to touch his blessed shrine,
      But I saw the dome of the king himself shine,
      'And tell me, Karbala, about my master Hussain,
      For my questions, no words of mine can contain,
      Tell me of his greatness, and his mercy and love,
      Tell me of the words that come from above,
      Karbala, tell me what his visitors don't know,
      Tell me those things which no human can show.'
      Karbala paused in awe and deep thought,
      For it was eloquence to do justice to him that she sought,
      'Oh visitor, no words of mine can suffice,
      But I will give you some simple words of advice...
      Oh visitor, go to him covered in my blessed sand,
      Gift him your tears of longing to be in this land,
      For Hussain is the king of kings in this world,
      The secrets of your soul by him are unfurled,
      Nothing you do will repay him a breath,
      For no man will see an end like his death.
      His death was so holy that God gifted him three,
      And yet these three are for this Earth that is temporary.
      The first were nine other lights from his line,
      Nine other princes of lineage divine,
      The second is the cure that my sand contains,
      I swear I can cure the worst of your pains,
      They say sand is so humble and the essence of low,
      But by God, 'til this day, His miracles I show.
      And the last and the third is where you should run,
      For under his dome his answer is one,
      Whatever need you have in your heart,
      Go, oh visitor, and to Hussain you impart,
      Shed the tears of your life and tell him your sorrow,
      I am a liar if your heart does not rest by tomorrow,
      Run like you'd run to be saved from a flood,
      For the ark of salvation floats on Hussain's holy blood.'
      I tried to run but my feet would slow down,
      How could a beggar run to touch a king's golden crown?
      So slowly I went and I kissed his caged shrine,
      And nothing but peace washed this stained soul of mine,
      And the rest of this journey can't be contained by this pen,
      Or the words of even the most eloquent men,
      But only one thing makes me hurt and insane...
      The dreams where I see his great shrine again.
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