Seven poets, seven emirates
I arrive in Ras al Khaimah the night before my appointment and, drained by travelling non-stop for 12 hours, barely register the atmosphere before going to bed. When you live in Abu Dhabi, it turns out, waking up in Ras al Khaimah can be surreal.
The city is like the UAE capital through the looking glass. It boasts fewer salwar kameezes, for example, but this is made up for by a strong south Indian contingent, seemingly better integrated than Abu Dhabi’s Pashtun community. Either there are more tourists or the tourists are more visible. Emiratis drive leisurely through the hilly terrain, which keeps tapering into promontories until it suddenly levels out in the desert as flat as the plains of Dhafra – and then, when you are least expecting it, the sand gives way to green.
Echoing the phantasmagoria is the nickname the poet Abdul Aziz Jassim, another Ras al Khaimah native, reportedly gave the emirate, invoking the magic realism of Gabriel-Garcia Marquez: Colombia.
Nor are the historical facts very sobering: its being coextensive with the ancient port town of Julfar; its being the last sheikhdom to join the federation; its being home to the 15th-century navigator Ahmad ibn Majid, credited with finding the route to India, as well as one of two possible birthplaces (the other being Sharjah) for his contemporary al Majdi bin Dhahir, the legendary father of Nabati poetry… But I am here to meet the poet Ahmad al Assam – perhaps the only major Ras al Khaimah writer to continue living in Ras al Khaimah – and it is on his life and work that I should concentrate.
Assam seems to embody the intersection between the Gulf tradition of oral verse and the contemporary prose poem. His work, published sporadically, reads like fragments from an epic of Julfar. Few themes could be differentiated from the setting, which the poet celebrates in Whitmanesque tones, unbridled by form or reason.
He did not know it then, but at the majalis to which he accompanied his father as a child, many of the Nabati texts recited were prose poems.
Born in 1965, he lived “between two freejs”, and a mad neighbour “who kept to himself until he had an episode, during which he would concern himself solely with us children, behaving as an over-attentive father”, who contributed to his understanding of the human condition. Assam would grow up to develop William Faulkner’s knack for reading greatness into modest lives, and Pablo Neruda’s ability to perceive in his homeland a virgin, preternatural world untouched by vice.
With a population of 250,000 (220,000 of whom live in the eponymous city) dispersed over 1,700 sq km, Ras al Khaimah is the northernmost emirate, bordered by Oman as well as Sharjah and Umm al Qaiwain. In the early 1970s it housed the Trucial comrades of Oman’s Dhufar revolutionaries. Ras al Khaimah territory contains both the Mussandam Peninsula – where the Arab first met the Ajami, or “he who cannot speak [Arabic]”: the oldest, slightly derogatory term for a Farsi – and the Gulf’s closest thing to the Grand Canyon, Wadi Bih. It is the only emirate that has combined fishing and sheep farming with agriculture, and today thrives on reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals used in ceramics manufacture as well as agricultural produce.
“My peers always knew to stop talking once they sensed my presence, even at a distance,” he recalls, “because I had ears that could catch what they said. Now when I think about it, I realise that I saw and looked with my ears. When I write a poem, I do not write it with my eyes, I hear it. All my life, any whisper that presented itself, I felt. And then it wrote me.”
Assam is a short, stocky man in a mustard khandoura, with the demeanour of a performer in the tradition of the early Arabian poets. When he picks me up, his right foot has recently been operated on – diabetes complications, he will explain – but he drives easily, pointing out the problem only when the photographer suggests he should walk up a steep pier. He speaks of his poor health with an equanimity bordering on fatalism, “the sheer stubbornness of my people, not pride,” he repeats, “just stubbornness”.
And stubbornness is less obvious in his work than his refusal to acknowledge that he was ever poor, patriotic or political. Assam participated in the 1974 protests against low wages which, initially triggered by Iran’s occupation of the Greater and Lesser Tumbs Islands, took Ras al Khaimah by storm. He insists it was to impress a sweetheart in the front lines. His relative indifference to travelling highlights all three qualities. Why would you want to leave even for Dubai, he asks, when you have every possible environment – coast, desert, mountain and field – at your doorstep?
Even his stint at the Emirates University in Al Ain, from 1983 to 1985, was cut short by an insurmountable yearning for home. He never graduated. “Were I to live in an apartment in a high-rise building,” he says, “my sense of wonder would flutter out of the window and back to Ras al Khaimah.”
At the Grand Restaurant, a small place where Indians scoop up biryani with their hands, Assam professes gratitude to Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras al Khaimah, for making modern education available to a generation of aspiring intellectuals. But it was this grassroots lore of the sea that informed his local radio appearances in the late 1980s – his true debut, coinciding with his joining the intellectual rights department of the Ministry of the Economy at Ras al Khaimah, which he now directs. This was Nabati poetry, and while it metamorphosed through the activities of a short-lived “literary salon” known as The Beggars and the establishment of the Ras al Khaimah branch of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates in 1989, the drive to recite to friends has remained unchanged.
“People in Ras al Khaimah may seem outdated,” Assam confides as he drives me back to the hotel, “but they are the Emirates’ true intellectuals.”
I arrived in Ras al Khaimah after a long drive at night and the same happens again with Ajman, the visually less compelling but intellectually psychedelic hometown of the poet Hashem al Muallim.
The smallest of the seven Emirates, with a population of 40,000 living in 260 sq km, Ajman lies entirely within Sharjah’s territory, recalling West Berlin prior to the unification of Germany – except that, rather than an iron curtain, all that separates the two emirates is freehold property and alcohol, with Ajman following in the footsteps of Dubai by accommodating expatriates and embracing the age of the high-rise. But the two are intertwined; Muallim, who was born in Sharjah in 1970, is himself an example of that. His father’s family lived in Sharjah, his mother’s in Ajman. When he was seven his father decided to join his in-laws. “You take a drag on your cigarette in Sharjah,” as he puts it, “and you blow it out in Ajman.”
The town seems cosier than anywhere I have been in the UAE, including Sharjah. It is framed by an unobtrusive Corniche, which figures extensively in Hashem’s work (one poem is prefixed with “This text was written over an abandoned pavement on the coast of Ajman”).
The stunning waterfront and the neat little bungalows inspire calm, though in the evening, driving back from the Carrefour shopping complex, Muallim and I will witness two traffic accidents within metres of each other on the main road. Ajman has all the luxuries of Dubai, but it retains a predominantly Emirati constituency – judging by Carrefour, at least, which is swarming with bare-headed men in white khandouras. People seem more approachable than in Abu Dhabi.
That morning I instantly recognise him at the Kampinsky terrace cafe: he is an average-looking man with an absurdist sense of humour. He is sipping Turkish coffee with a printout of his last poem in front of him: a homage to Abdul Aziz Jassim. Muallim featured in joint collections (notably with Assam) before publishing his sole book with the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information in 2003, Those Buried in the Air. A civil servant with the Ajman police, he never attended university – the early death of his father obliged him to provide for the family – and he explains with wry humour how he and his family live in a room at his mother’s. Poverty is a point of pride for him.
Muallim never writes about places per se, but his childlike wonder is rooted in the intimately observed settings of his youth; and he was part of a frenzied “search for the unusual” centred here in a period roughly coinciding with The Beggars in Ras al Khaimah. (The same period also saw the short-lived poetry journals Nawariss and Ruaa, published in 1990-91, put out in Sharjah by the present-day director of the Dubai International Film Festival, Masoud Amrallah, and the poets al Hanouf Mohammad and Ibrahim al Mullah.)
He still counts himself among a creative community of young people spanning the two emirates who were revolutionary in the intellectual sense: lovers of Bob Marley who knew nothing about Rasta, or else self-styled Dadaists until they saw a picture of Tristan Tzara, a groomed gentleman, and realised that Jassim or Ahmad Rashed Thani – the Emirates’ two biggest names in prose poetry – had more to say to them than either dreadlocks or gibberish.
Speaking unhurriedly, Muallim traces his loss of innocence to the sudden death of his younger brother in a car accident when he was eight or nine. He was present at the scene but it took him a long time to comprehend it. “I asked where they were taking him,” he recounts, “and they said to the grave. Was he going to sleep at someone else’s house? They said it was the house of God. And from this day on, my reflexive definition of the word grave has been the place where God lives. So I left an orange on our secret tree branch in the house, where I knew he couldn’t fail to find it, and I went to bed thinking that if it stayed where it was till morning, that meant my brother would never come home again.”
More cheerfully, he recalls his Borgesian wonder at “those wholly magical creatures” he saw at the fish market nearby, where he discovered the existence of the wide, wide world beyond.
“One must become a black fish,” he wrote in Those Buried in the Air, “in the midst of lazy fanatics.”
The more I read of Muallim’s poems, the more familiar it feels. I realise with surprise that his texts have an affinity with those Egyptian poets known as the Generation of the Nineties; Muallim has had no contact with those poets (and read very little of their work). It dawns on me that, despite the economic divide separating the urban Gulf from older metropolises of Arabic literature, developments that have transformed poetry were happening everywhere at the same time. And yet, to a far greater extent than anyone in Cairo, Muallim’s conceptual vocabulary is drawn from nature: the tree, the fish, the bird.
“Still,” he says, “you can be a poet without having a word to your name. It has to do with being in tune, being able to see poetry for what it is – in the way the wave laps, in the birds’ wings, in the wind blowing through palm fronds. The poet is simply someone who can be like fronds, someone poetry can move through.”
The journey from Ajman to Sharjah is far briefer than expected. On the way I recall the bigger emirate’s status as “cultural capital”. The third largest emirate, Sharjah has coasts on both the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and its ports are the country’s busiest. It also has small enclaves separate from the area around Sharjah City (population 800,000). Its rulers, the Qasimis – a branch of which also rule Ras al Khaimah – were among the Gulf’s most invincible seafarers in the 19th century. Besides oil and housing revenues, Sharjah has a buoyant logistics and trucking sector.
It seems oddly appropriate that the office where I am headed – that of Al Ittihad newspaper – should be located across the road from the Kassbah with its iconic ferry wheel, in a building called Babel Towers. Besides shunning media attention, the man I am after, a cultural editor there, has stated ivory-tower views on poetry.
In a sense, the poet Ibrahim al Mullah – author of Baskets of Desert (published with the German based Dar al Jamal in 1997) and I Left my Glance in the Well (privately printed in 2003) as well as a book of film criticism and several short films – is Assam’s diametrical opposite. He sees poetry not as an oral or public exchange, but as a private act “akin to isolation”. Not a bang but rather, in this case, a moving image.
Where Assam sees with his ears, the trajectory of Mullah’s development has followed a strictly cinematic course, with “the great poets” of the screen – Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Nikita Mikhalikov – informing his sensibility. Where the Julfari feels no need to travel, Mullah derives his inspiration from wandering not only around the Arab world, where he is better connected than most Emirati writers, but in Asia and Europe as well. His position in a government institution has enabled him to explore cities like Rome and Bangkok.
When I meet him, Mullah has not written poetry for three years. “When you work as a journalist,” he explains, “it spoils writing for you. The inner light that guides the poem, the pleasure you take in it, begins to fade. ”
True to a notion of freedom that drove him against the verse compositions with which he started, Mullah’s poems evoke all the places he has been to, but they never name them. His Sharjah turns out to be different from the bustling city I have come to see.
I have waited for half an hour at the office when Mullah marches in energetically, a broad-shouldered, tall figure with a light beard. His demeanour immediately strikes me with a remarkable sense of balance – warmth and distance, enthusiasm and caution, melancholy and good cheer.
“Not here,” Mullah waves at the window, lighting another cigarette in the conference room, “but Sharjah remains a horizontal, not a vertical city.” Like most journalists at their offices, he is distracted, in a hurry. “It’s a bit like European cities, not so much in terms of its architecture as its general aspect. I am not talking about this area, which has gone the way of Dubai, but in the places where we grew up and in some cases where we still live, the place retains its character. It doesn’t have buildings that block out the sun and the air and the blue of the sky. Its skyline does not induce that kind of terror about your connection to your own space or how you might live in it.”
Mullah was born in 1966, and he deplores the dog-eat-dog existence to which “a virgin land” has been reduced over the course of his lifetime. People’s relations had been intuitive until “the compulsion to prove oneself in society” supplanted clarity and good will.
“There are break-ups,” he keeps saying. “Even among relatives, there are break-ups, and endless interference. Maybe other people accept it as the normal course of things but for a poet or an emotional person, it takes its toll on you.”
He was reluctant to do the interview. Now, to avoid being photographed without his sunglasses on, he accompanies the photographer and me downstairs as he speaks, describing two kinds of house for each family, located in two different freejs: a summer house built out of palm fronds, and a winter house built out of mud reinforced with rock from the sea.
“The sea was our guest at high tide,” he muses. “It came into the house, and that was fine – we were used to it.
“This openness,” he says, pausing to emit a melancholy laugh. “This openness to the colour blue.”
A nation of words
The writer Tariq Ebeid al Ali began publishing his Nabati verses in 1985. Stephen Lock / The National
A poet in Dubai is like a needle in a haystack. With nearly 1.4 million residents, Dubai is the largest emirate by population, but though it may boast as many Arab men of letters as Abu Dhabi, they are all but evanescent in the multicultural multitude. Despite the scarcity of oil, Dubai’s superlative architecture and embrace of international capitalism make it a worthy experiment in future metropolitanism, but only 40 years ago it was little more than a string of fishing villages on the Arabian Gulf. Today, natives are an even smaller minority than elsewhere in the UAE.
Walking into the Spinney’s shopping complex in Jumeirah – where I am to meet Khaled al Budoor, a respected Dubai poet who maintains a visible profile against the odds – it occurs to me how strange it must be to have been born here in 1961, to have grown up in tandem with such mind-blowing development and, after three years in Ohio obtaining an MA in scriptwriting, to have come back to find your teenage haunts transformed beyond recognition. “Let’s meet at the Starbucks,” he says on the phone. “Jumeirah is where I grew up. You know Jumeirah, don’t you?” And it is as if, asking me, he momentarily doubts how sure he himself is. “One feels a kind of estrangement,” he says now. “The places of childhood are no longer there.”
Budoor is a man of less than average height in a spotless white khandoura, slight but sturdy, with an incredibly trim light moustache going from grey to white. His bearing reflects years of working as a radio and television anchor, notably with Dubai TV, where he settled for early retirement some five years ago. He has written films and for the press and presided over seminars and an all-Dubai sophistication comes through in his conversation: cosmopolitan, aloof, slightly technocratic. “One feels fortunate to live in a city like Dubai,” he intones, “because it offers the writer everything he wants – books, films, equipment, contact with the contemporary world…”
He started out writing in classical verse, quickly making the transition through the modern, modified metres into prose, but he has always written in the Emirati dialect as well as standard Arabic. Some of his vernacular poems have rhyme and rhythm, but the extended metaphors out of which he forges a text are comparable in each case. So far he has published three books: Night (1992), Winter (2002) and (in Emirati Arabic) Ink and Dalliance (1999). Several more volumes, including collected articles on folk literature, are upcoming in the next year.
He seems at home enough in Starbucks, but his poems would never be. They emerge, rather, from “a simple fishing village” where “PE classes at school consisted of swimming in the sea” and old men gathered in the moonlight to listen to each other’s stories and verses, their laughter unencumbered by the absence of a dining table, their knowledge of the outside world all but fantastical. Part of this village may once have occupied the space of the multinational outlet where we are talking, but Budoor does not seem to mind.
And it is precisely the ability not to mind, and the contemporary idiom he writes in, that allow his poems to preserve those nostalgic images as places of beauty to which Arabic readers everywhere can return. Yet his true achievement, paradoxically, remains the way he has managed to depart – from the Emirates, Ohio, even his career – returning, painfully but exultantly, through the creative act. What he feels for the old Jumeirah, far from homesickness in time, is “an escape-return relationship,” as he puts it, “escape and return”. These days he recognises his birthplace only “in the faces of some friends, or else in recorded songs of the sea”; sometimes, he adds, matter-of-factly, “I feel in tune with its spirit”.
But Dubai’s architecture does not help induce this feeling, “even if the human being tries, in his own house, to provide a more merciful space”. Still, Budoor’s principal concern is with “estrangement in language”, a literal reference to the fact that few people in Dubai speak Arabic. It is a fate he seems resigned to as part of the city’s contemporary character, what makes it a great place to live. “But at other times,” he sighs, as if making a delayed confession, “I have the urge to run far into the desert – or the sea.”
The trip to Fujairah never materialises. As is the case with Umm al Qaiwain, for the longest time I am told one of two things: there are no poets; or what poets there are, “classicists”, are not contemporary poets. “There are poets,” the Ras al Khaimah master Ahmad al Assam finally declares. “They may not write in prose, they may use Emirati Arabic. But there are poets.” And he picks up his mobile phone…
After a few days’ worth of toing and froing, one sultry evening I take a taxi to the Shangri-La Hotel, on Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai, to meet the Nabati poet Khaled al Dhahnani, who shows up a little late at 11.30pm, straight from the studio where he was a guest juror at a teenage Nabati poetry competition. “When you have been a juror on so many competitions,” he explains, “it doesn’t feel right to participate in the Millions Poet.” Within hours, Dhahnani is due at the airport for his summer holiday in Europe, but he has not only made the effort to show up, he also pays for dinner and provides over an hour of engaging conversation.
A tall, dutifully groomed figure with an easy-going, slightly distracted air, Dhahnani was born in 1972 to a family so involved in the politics of Fujairah – and so close to the Al Sharqi family – that he compares them to the Baramikah, viziers to the Abbasids and their empire’s true movers and shakers for hundreds of years after the ninth century. “Except that, unlike them,” he adds, “we do good.” Although he keeps his house in Dubai as well as Fujairah, Dhahnani feels he is wholly a product of this most mountainous of all the emirates, which commands stunning views of the Gulf of Oman. And, at 130,000 people, it is the second least populated emirate, with active mining and tourism industries but high unemployment rates among Emiratis.
A major media official in Fujairah (he organises the bi-annual International Monodrama Festival) Dhahnani stresses his connection with nature and the conscious effort to “reinforce talent with reading”, developing his own instantly recognisable style. He may write in the vernacular, he says, but he uses “a white language” comprehensible to all Arabs. And he is so concerned with the future of Arabic among Emiratis that for months he struggled to rid his speech of the word “OK”, but ironically – in a high-end setting potentially more alienating than Jumeirah – he feels no estrangement whatsoever.
At 67,340 square kilometres – 86 per cent of the country’s land area – Abu Dhabi is too vast to picture all at once. First, there is the coastal city housing most of the emirate’s 1.3 million residents: in itself, a layered amalgam of worlds, as multinational as Dubai, but with more stress on Bedouin heritage. Then there is the original desert spring, Al Ain, population 614,180: the agricultural, educational and camel-racing centre whence settled members of the emirate’s powerful tribes, the Al Nahyan included, invariably hail. Between and beyond the two cities, oil fields, palm forests, luxurious resorts and construction workers’ camps frame the legendary Empty Quarter.
The mythic journey from Al Ain to the city of Abu Dhabi – originally a seasonal fishing and pearl-diving pilgrimage – has come to symbolise the formative years of the UAE, with the centre of gravity shifting from one to the other in the course of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s lifetime, to coincide with the genesis of the federation. It is a journey the director of the Union of Writers and Authors of the Emirates, Hareb al Dhahiri, made at the age of 12, during a historical juncture, he says, “bridging two eras”. Moving from one city to the next was like “replacing the desert with the sea”. Together with Abu Dhabi’s cultural initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s – lectures and exhibits in the Tourist Club, the establishment of the Cultural Foundation, liaisons with Sharjah about founding the Union – it remains a central reference point in his life. “Abu Dhabi,” he says, “was a trail blazer.”
A Romantic poet better known as a short story writer, Dhahiri lives in Battin, an older enclave with one of the lowest skylines in the city, not far from the Old Airport Road. His spacious villa is furnished in the Second Empire style prevalent among the Arab bourgeoisie. Joining him in his salon, I remember that he is not only an intellectual, but also an Adnoc manager, and reportedly an effective juggler of priorities in the vexed arena of Abu Dhabi cultural policy. A critic of “mixing tourism into culture”, he brings the views of Abu Dhabi literary figures, like the poet Ahmad Rashed Thani, and the novelist Ali Abur Rish, the latter originally from RAK, into the public sphere. “Countries work on their artists until they become international,” he declares. “They do not import foreign artists, paying them millions of dollars they wouldn’t dream of earning in their countries.”
Dhahiri’s house bespeaks comfort and safety. And so, in a sense, do his poems: easy expressions of a “philosophy of love” informed by the work of visionaries like Blake and Gibran Khalil Gibran. He has written four books: Mandoline (1997), A Kiss on the Cheek of the Moon (1999) and Puppets’ Night and Soul Pulse (2004). Only two are collections of poems. In the others, narrative plays a smaller role than exploration of the psyche; and the same “philosophical way of writing” produces a layered, sometimes arcane short story similar to a prose poem. Only very subtly do Dhahiri’s social concerns rise to the surface: the disintegration of the fabric of society, dependence on the West, and the receding tide of cultural as opposed to tourist initiative.
A dark, round man with slow gestures and an easy smile, Dhahiri sits gingerly in an armchair to delineate his literary trajectory: from traditional verses through khawatir, or thoughts, to short stories. “For Arabs and especially Bedouins,” he says, “the connection with poetry is born with you when you are born. So it is only natural that even a short story writer should take this course.” Gradually, as he warms to his theme, his back slumps further into the cushion, his arms relax, and what strikes me as a conversational technique peculiar to Abu Dhabi – slow, measured but eventually revealing – begins to operate.
Dhahiri speaks of Scarborough, England, where – at his own initiative, at the age of 15 – he spent three months living with a local family to learn English. He speaks of his three years studying business at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, where his writing teacher – a tremendous support to him – turned out to be a Jewess, and how people had discouraged him from going to America under the impression, gleaned from action movies, that whoever lives there will end up dying in a shooting. He speaks of “the simple and old place”, Al Ain, “that stays with you as you grow up”; and of the inscrutable mysteries of poetic inspiration.
But imperceptibly, deftly, he steers the conversation back to Abu Dhabi. “When I first got here, there was an empty sand lot where we used to play, the present al Rawdha: people would come over and ask after a specific person. We were small then, but we could always tell them where that person lived. That’s how closely knit life was. But these days it reminds me of Scarborough. Now we are big,” he laughs, “but we don’t know the names of our next-door neighbours.”
I have been in Umm al Qaiwain for nearly 24 hours when I realise the person I am here to see is actually in Abu Dhabi. So the interview is postponed till my return, and my observations are promptly recorded before I head back, smoking to my heart’s content in my first unmetered Emirati taxi.
Tariq Ebeid, a member of the Al Ali clan of which the Al Mualla sheikhs are a subsection, is a former police officer currently training as a school teacher. Periodic changes of career, he believes, are necessary for a rounded view of life. Born in 1967, Ebeid started publishing his Nabati verses in 1985; and urban discomfort notwithstanding, he has always worked in Abu Dhabi, spending the weekends and holidays at home, where he still has the greatest audience base, frequently holding poetic evenings in an atmosphere where “everyone is family and friends”.
The least populous emirate, and in some ways the least developed, Umm al Qaiwain recalls the hinterlands of the Sahara and Sinai by turns. It has few public amenities, no real centre, and a vastly spread out miscellany of beach-orientated establishments, among which the garland-dispensing, dancing-girl-on-stage “Indian nightclub” is particularly popular. Patronised mainly by sailors and jet skiers, the emirate “has few resources”, Ebeid says, but “boasts a glorious tradition of learning and the old, affectionate way of life”.
It has contributed much skilled labour to the bigger emirates, he goes on, producing a portfolio of magazine clippings out of which he reads a few samples.
Ebeid is an admirer of the Millions Poet, from which he says he learns a lot, but the opportunity to participate has not presented itself. In reality, he belongs more firmly in a humorist tradition of zajal, less emotional and rhetorical than the kind of work showcased in the programme, and more concerned with everyday life.
A small, dark, eminently hospitable man, Ebeid meets me at his Old Airport Road apartment while it is being packed in preparation for travelling to Umm al Qaiwain, and he repeatedly apologises for nonexistent inconveniences. “This is only a place to stay,” he says, “so that the children who go to school in Abu Dhabi should have a home here too. But the quiet, comfortable life is back there in Umm al Qaiwain, where there is neither traffic nor noise – and we keep travelling back and forth. One day, God willing, you will come and visit me there. And then you will see the difference for yourself.”
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