THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER TWO: THROUGH THE MIDDLE EAST
Our first morning in Syria started off with another walk over the last five mIles of mountains that extended beyond the frontier. It was strenuous exercise because we had to keep breaking into a trot every time the old bus struggled up the road behind us. The sun was boiling hot and I for one was exhausted when at last we were able to climb aboard and ride down the far side. I could now understand why people over forty were barred, and in fact our average age must have been around twenty-four or five. I believe Andrew was the youngest at nineteen, and very few of the party were over thirty.
We drove into Latakia shortly after noon and made a brief stop for lunch. The Syrians proved even more curious than the Turks and it was hard to get in and out of the bus through the gaping crowds that gathered round. As a small experiment in psychology I escaped the crowd around the blue bus and then moved quietly to join the massed crowd staring solemnly into the red bus. They were so engrossed that not one noticed that one or these peculiar strangers was among them. I stood there for about five minutes and I must admit that the girls in the red bus were worth looking at, but although I was rubbing shoulders with the closely packed Arabs in their djellabahs and woolen balaclava helmets none of them spared me a glance.
I finally got bored and went away, and I wasn't sure whether I had proved a point or not, or even what it was.
When we moved on the mountains were behind us and the road led over a flat plain with stony hills beyond. There were crops of tobacco and tomatoes and many patches of tiny cotton bushes. On our right lay the flat blue sparkle of the Mediterranean, and once we saw the ruins or an old crusaders castle sprawling over a dull brown hilltop.
We crossed the frontier with Lebanon before nightfall, and here I was pestered with five minutes of questions by a fat, dozy official who seemed convinced that I had visited, or had intentions of visiting, the state of Israel. I refused to confess to this vile crime and finally he got tired and waved me away.
We camped overnight on a shingly beach by the sea, and most of the next morning Derek and Jim were busily tinkering with the innards of the engine. The rest of us spent our time swimming, sun-bathing and catching up on diaries and dhobi.
Some of the energetic types cleaned the bus out and re-stacked the luggage and a lot of interesting and intimate items were discovered, some of which nobody wanted to claim.
We finally got away but after a few miles the blue bus broke down again. Everybody piled out and this time we had to push her to the nearest garage. There was another long delay before she was declared fit to continue, but in the process of making repairs our mechanics had accidentally smashed the jam jar that had been improvising as a filter jar underneath the carburetor. (At least, I think that was what it was doing.) There was a general search to find another one, a brylcreem jar was tried for size and failed to fit, and finally the job was again improvised with a plastic mug. The old bus rolled on for another couple of miles and then grumbled to another halt. Sometime previously we had written Kabul or Bust in the grime over the back of the boot, and now we solemnly crossed out the first two words and added two new letters. The selected message now read simply, Busted.
We were due to stop overnight at a camp site at Byblos, still some twenty-five miles down the coast, and Anne and Uncle Dave volunteered to hitch-hike down there and send the red bus back to fetch us. Meanwhile the rest of us sat on the roadside in a big circle around Big John and his guitar. Behind us were the lights of Tripoli through which we had just passed and we amused ourselves with a sing song for over an hour while the traffic flashed by in the night.
Finally a local bus stopped on its empty, homeward run, and the driver held a conference with Roger which resulted in both of them going off to the next town to find a more experienced mechanic. The mechanic ultimately arrived, and after a fresh examination or our old wreck it was decided to tow us into the garage. The mechanic got us moving again but we could only chug along slowly in low gear. By this time the red bus had returned and followed us up like a friendly cow elephant playing nursemaid to a pregnant member of the herd.
It took us four hours to cover the remaining twenty miles to Byblos. 'The blue bus groaned and crawled her way along the coast road, and threw out clouds of dense grey diesel fumes. I advised a few tablets of Entero-vioform dropped into the fuel supply, but nobody took any notice. At first we all jumped out to pull or push on the hills, but eventually we became aware that our efforts were making no difference. The bus could get along at walking pace and that was all, and most of us retired to ride in the red bus bringing up the rear. A few of the energetic types walked alongside the cripple and made pretence at pushing, but this was mostly for the benefit or the bewildered motorists and lorry drivers who stared at us in passing. The most noticeable of all was Jo who had prepared for bed a couple of hours previously and was gaily pushing in her pajamas. I suppose we progressed at between four and five miles per hour and it was three o'clock in the morning before we rolled into the camping site at Byblos, where the lucky crew of the red bus were all fast asleep.
The next day the red bus ran a shuttle service to convey us all into Beirut, and we spent three confusing days at a camping beach just outside the city, while the blue bus apparently had an operation in every garage along the way. Beirut is a free market with legal money changing shops all around the broad Square of the Martyrs and here we all bought our Indian rupees at favorable rates.
For me this capital city of the Lebanon proved to be somewhat disappointing. I bought a street map, which is my usual habit to help find the points of interest, but the map of Beirut showed only blocks of streets with no outstanding points of interest at all. There was a bazaar on the south side of the Martyrs Square, but it was not very colorful after those of Marrakech and Istanbul, and my overall impression was one of muddled confusion, with wide main streets cutting through narrow bazaar streets and dirty vegetable markets.
From our camp site across the bay the city was an enticing horizon of flashing neon, but I never did seem to find its center where all the night life revolved. The nearest I got was when I found myself in the red light area on the north side of the Martyrs Square. They were narrow, sleazy streets with high-balconied houses, and hung from all levels were white neon signs with exotic names like ''Sonia”, ''Fatimah'' and ''Antoinette''. Some or the signs were even heart-shaped, although I could hardly imagine the advertisers having any soft pink hearts of their own. The windows beyond the balconies all reflected subdued lighting, blue and purple, and predominantly red. On the ground level the doorways were open to reveal plush, red-draped sofas with fat, blousy women sprawling around like drugged sows in their slips or nightdresses. Each house also boasted a flashy juke box, which was presumably to entertain the customers when they had to wait in line. It was all very sick indeed, and I had difficulty in shaking off a couple of ten-year-old pimps who were far too cynical to believe in stray authors with an interest that only went as far as absorbing background atmosphere.
During our stay at Beirut I also found time to visit the underground caves at Jita. It was Phil's idea, and as everyone else was too lazy to accompany her I went along. We had to hitch about eight kilometers back along the road and the sun was scorching as usual. When we got there the cool interior of the caves and the boat ride along the underground lake provided welcome relief.
It was a fascinating trips drifting slowly in a long, shallow boat through the three to four hundred yards of this strange, subterranean world. In places the caves were of almost cathedral proportions, and yet at times our boat scraped on the rocks on either side to get through the narrower channels. The roof was a high fissure in the rock that receded far above us.
Strategic lights had been placed both above and below the water to light up the weird formations of stalagmites and stalactites that made up so many varied scenes. There were vast slopes of snow, glistening with icy frost, frozen waterfalls and great barriers of organ pipes. Fairy caves were in abundance with grotesque and twisted limestone sentinels, and there was the usual leaning tower of Pisa, and thick white columns that turned some caves into Greek temples. To my vivid imagination there were also misshapen monsters, and herds of elephant with their ears, tusks and tails formed by the hanging stalactites. The temperature was cool, and the dark surface of the lake was refreshingly cold to my trailing fingers.
After two days the red bus loaded up and drove on to the Syrian border and Damascus, and it was hopefully expected that the blue bus would be ready to follow within a matter of hours.
However, the blue bus failed us again, and taking advantage of the delay six of the girls decided to hitch-hike inland to visit the Roman ruins at Baalbek. The idea was to hitch from there to the frontier and there wait for the blue bus to catch up, but if was felt that at least one man should accompany them in case they had to sleep out at the frontier post. Again all the other males preferred to laze around and wait for the bus, and so I volunteered my humble services.
We split into two groups; Jan, Cherry, Phil and Jo staying together while I accompanied Lois and jean. It took our party seven lifts and one short bus ride to cover the sixty odd miles to Baalbek, and most of the way the scenery was quite impressive. The road climbed immediately into the mountains and offered some sweeping views of the scattered white city of Beirut far below and behind. The air became noticeably cooler with every climbing mile, and it was very pleasant after the sticky heat along the coast. Nearer to Baalbek the road became level and ran arrow-straight across a ploughed red plain with low, dull brown hills blocking off the horizon.
There was very little traffic on this last stretch and it was here that we had to take the bus which conveniently chugged past along the last few miles. We found that the four Australian girls were already there, having passed us with two long lifts.
The ruins at Baalbek, once part of the mighty Roman Empire, were extensive in their fallen majesty, now silent and dusty beneath the hot Lebanon sun. Six giant columns still stand along one side of the huge platform to the temple of Jupiter, which was completed soon after 60 AD, and nearby stands the smaller temple to Bacchus, complete except for its roof. The city was first called Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, a title it shared with what is now Cairo. In 748 AD it was sacked by the Saracens, and was sacked again by Tamerlane in 1400AD. Later earthquakes tumbled more of its glories. I stood on the Jupiter temple with my thoughts drifting back into the past, and then abruptly they swung to the future. I wondered -- would some distant, unknown descendant of mine one day stand amid the ruins or London and St. Paul's to wonder about me? Time and Death walk hand in hand and they have a place for us all.
A couple of hours of exploring the ruins were unfortunately all that we could spare, because we wanted to reach the Syrian border before dark. The four girls left first, and when they had had time to get a lift and clear I followed with Jean and Lois. We got quick lift in a lorry that took us back across the red plain and then two short lifts in cars which took us almost into Chtoura, the junction town where we would have to turn on to the Damascus road. Here we were picked up by three young Lebanese in a small grey Volkswagen, and this was one lift that we didn't particularly want. The grey Volkswagen had given us a lift into Chtoura on our way out to Baalbek, and then by strange chance the three Lebanese had casually appeared again at the ruins an hour later. They were a little too friendly, and had suggested that we all have dinner together, which we had declined on the excuse that we wanted to reach the frontier in daylight. Now, here they were again, following close on our heels, full of casual smiles, and remarking on the quirks of coincidence that kept causing our paths to cross.
I didn't believe in coincidence: but Chtoura was only a few more miles down the road and so we accepted another lift.
They were so friendly that it was difficult to refuse. Lois was maneuvered into the front seat between the driver and one of his friends, but I managed to place myself between Jean and the third Lebanese in the back. The car jolted on with all six of us crushed inside, but at Chtoura the driver casually decided that he had nothing better to do and would oblige us by taking us a little further along the road to Damascus. By then it was dark, and I had a definite feeling that we were headed for trouble.
We drove on for half an hour, and then passed a small canvas shelter over a pile of ripe green melons. Our driver promptly swung of the road and suggested that we all share a melon.
It was impossible to refuse, and although the juicy red chunks of melon tasted delicious I was still uneasy in my mind, despite the happy smiles that passed between us. Our driver paid the old woman who kept the melon stall and then we walked back to the car. I got outsmarted in the seating arrangements and when we drove off both girls were now squashed in the middle of the car with Lebanese arms draped casually around their shoulders. Everything was done casually. A little later our driver abruptly pulled up on a lonely stretch of pitch black road and there was a solemn discussion as to whether or not they could hear a knocking sound from the silent back wheel.
Perhaps my thriller writing mind was working overtime, but I was certain that the moment had come. The driver got out making a show of looking at the wheel, and I expected that at any moment I would be invited to come out and inspect the damage for myself, and if I stooped to look at that wheel then there would be something hard exploding across the back of my head. The odds were three to one and they were all heavier men than me, and in the darkness inside the car I reached down into the small, leather duffle bag that was resting between my feet.
The bag carried my camera, passport, diary and such items; plus a large sheath knife packed just in case of moments like this. I loosened the knife in the sheath and eased it up to the top of the bag within easy reach of my fingers, and then I sat with a hot, dry taste in my mouth and waited. Our driver shuffled about in the night outside, and I was sure that he was waiting for me to get tired of the delay and emerge to see what was wrong. However, I wasn't getting out of that car except as a last resort, and at last he must have realized that I wasn't such an innocent and easy obstacle after all.
He got back into the car, looking suitably dubious and uncertain, and then drove slowly on.
After another two mites he stopped again and I felt the sinking feeling coming quickly back to my stomach. Then to my surprise and relief I realized that we were at the border, the lighted frontier post and the customs buildings were just ahead.
We got out and shook hands all round, and then the Volkswagen turned quickly about and sped back into the night towards Chtoura. The two girls were even more relieved than I was, and admitted that they were very glad that I had not been fool enough to get out and look at the wheel.
We went in search of the four Australian girls and found them at an open air table by a small bar. They had arrived half an hour previously with no trouble on the way, but there was a problem now. It appeared that the border police had forbidden them to sleep near the frontier and had told them that they must go back to the next village to find a hotel.
This was hardly possible as we had told Janet and Roger that we would wait here for the blue bus, and did not know what time of night or day it would eventually come through. Fortunately the order was not enforced when the police found that the party had now swelled to six girls with one man to take care of them, although I was to have more cause for doubting my capabilities in that direction before the night was out.
I made several attempts to put through a telephone call to the camping site at Beirut to find out whether or not the blue bus had left, but it was all a waste of time. It took me an hour merely to find out the number, using all the local directories and enlisting the aid of all the English-speaking police and customs officials I could find. A call was eventually put through to Beirut but the exchange there needed ten minutes to make the connection. After twenty minutes I contacted the exchange again and was told I must wait another half an hour.
Forty minutes passed before I enquired again, and then I was told that it would be another hour before my call could go through. At that point I gave up and reflected that perhaps the English telephone service wasn't quite so bad after all.
However, by that time of night we had moved into the bar and collected quite an enthusiastic audience. Jean, Louis, Jan and Cherry had decided to retire to their sleeping bags which they had stretched out on the sheltered terrace of a new rest house that was not yet open to the public on the far side of the road, but Phil and Jo were making a night of it with about eight to ten assorted border officials eagerly hanging around them. I felt responsible for my little harem so I stayed too. We were all drinking beer but the Lebanese insisted upon adding potent, aniseed-flavored Raki into my glass, and again I had the feeling that I was in the way and that our new friends would be only too pleased if I was to pass out and vanish under the table.
A point of honor was at stake and I drank more than the best of them through that cheerful and seemingly endless evening. Phil became a firm favorite with the Police Chief who was soon crooning and calling her Philomena; and he and his companions kept us continually supplied with drink and food. We gorged upon Arab bread, dishes of marmalade and sour cheese, nuts, chocolate, eggs, and a whole variety of weird mixtures. The Police Chief was eating from Phil’s hand and kissing it whenever he got the chance, and I decided that if she wanted to encourage him then she could enjoy or suffer the consequences. I didn't care anymore. I was simply determined that I at least would be on my feet when the party was over, even though the beer and Raki might be flowing out of my ears.
It was very late indeed when Phil and Jo decided that enough was enough, and it was only with difficulty that we managed to break away. Phil had a tough job in disentangling from her tame Police Chief, and I had to chase the serving boy three times rotund the customs block when he ran off with Jo's sleeping bag. I was quite proud of the fact that I was still able and sure-footed enough to catch him. Finally we were able to get away and rejoin the other four girls who were all fast asleep, and lay our sleeping bags on the hard concrete beside them.
I switched off my will-power, the Raki took its place, and I was asleep immediately.
It seemed almost immediately that I was woken up again.
Everyone else was awake and amid a babble of confusion the Police Chief and two of his colleagues were stamping about and brandishing drawn revolvers. The story was somewhat garbled but I eventually learned that Jo had opened her eyes to see a strange man hauling himself over the back edge of the high terrace that formed our sleeping quarters. She had promptly screamed, the intruder had promptly dropped back and fled into the night, and the police had come running in a massed charge. Thanks to the Raki I had slept through everything except the subsequent noise of explanations.
I thought ruefully that I had made a poor protector for my little harem, but on later reflection I decided that it was just as well. If I had heard Jo's first scream and jumped up to tackle the intruder, then the odds were that I would have been shot in the back by the eager policemen as they came en masse round the corner behind me. The night was dark, the police Chief was no more sober than I, and the charge had actually been led by a tough, bald-headed man who had only just come on duty and would not have recognized me anyway.
Finally we settled down again, and Jo and Phil shifted their sleeping bags as close as possible to mine. The Police Chief Jumped down over the terrace and hurled away the rocks that the mystery intruder had placed there as steps, and then he crashed about in the bushes with his jaw and his gun thrust forward like a swarthy John Wayne daring the Indians to come out and fight. I judged that that should intimidate any other lecherous prowlers in the night, and crawled back into my sleeping bag again.
I slept like a log until an amorous mongrel dog with a wet, lolloping tongue tried to join me at four in the morning.
I threw him out three times, and then at five o'clock I was woken again as the Police Chief went off duty and called to coo sweet goodbyes to his Philomena. Of the two the dog was the easiest to shoo away, even though he wanted to box playfully every time I tried to shove his nose out of my sleeping bag.
The next morning there was still no sign of the blue bus so we hitched on ahead to give ourselves more time to see Damascus. We kept to the same groups for hitch-hiking and when Jean, Lois and I arrived we found the red bus parked in the broad Baghdad Boulevard. We dumped our sleeping bags in the boot and then set off to view the city.
Damascus is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, and the modern facade of wide boulevards around the Central Bank and the main square soon vanished behind us as we walked into the old city. We saw both of the two main mosques, first the graceful El-Tekiyeh Mosque with its slender white minarets and cloistered courtyard, shaded by tall, dark green cypress trees; and then the larger Omayyad Mosque in the heart of the bazaars which contains the Tomb of John The Baptist. To enter the Omayyad Mosque Jean and Lois were obliged to don long black gowns to hide their arms and legs, and I couldn’t quite decide whether they looked like nuns or schoolteachers. The prayer hall of the mosque was vast in size with magnificent stained glass windows, blue, yellow, red and green, and long rows of glittering cut-glass chandeliers. The carpets were another glory of color, predominantly red and green, and inside the mosque was the small green-domed chapel over the Tomb.
Close by was The Street Called Straight, which runs east to west through the old city for almost a mile, with ruined Roman gateways at either end. South of The Street was, a maze of narrow, ancient little side streets, dusty and mud-walled, smelling faintly of donkeys, and retaining an atmosphere that must have simmered gently in the sunshine for centuries. All around The Street Called Straight was the bazaar area, a busy and noisy hive of activity. The Street itself had a high black roof, and gave the incongruous impression of walking through an eastern bazaar set in a western railway station.
When we attempted to push through the thickest part of the bazaar it was like trying to squeeze through a herd of milling human cattle. I was leading the way, and then a car did the seemingly impossible and forced its way through the crush from the opposite direction. It was a taxi, moving at a crawl, but moving nonetheless and squashing everybody to one side. As it went past there was an agitated commotion behind me and I looked back to see Lois striking out wildly at the crowd with her fists.
I thought that someone had grabbed her handbag, but although I was only a couple of yards away I would have been as much help on the other side of the moon. In that jam I was pinned tight and it was impossible to move. When the car had passed by I got back as quickly as I could, but both girls still had their handbags intact. Instead I learned that every Arab in the crowd had used his advantage to have a quick pinch and a feel around their bottoms. Jean said that there had been hands everywhere and that it was horrible, although she was smiling as she said it, and Lois was furious. After that they insisted on walking in close single file wherever there was a crowd, with me bringing up the rearguard.
The blue bus finally appeared with the missing half of the Overlanders sometime during the afternoon, and that evening all forty of us occupied one of the city restaurants for dinner and cleaned the place out of steaks. Then, with the two buses together again, we drove on and crossed the next frontier into Jordan at about midnight. The following night we reached Jerusalem, but on the way we made diversions to visit Jerash and the Red Sea.
Jerash was another once-proud city of Imperial Rome, now crumbled into ruins in the arid, desert dust. There were fine temples, paved streets and colonnades, and the overall impression was of a sun-bleached, petrified forest of white columns spread over the dry white hills. The sun was savagely hot, and we looked like a combination of the Desert Rats and Fred Karno's Army as we explored the ruins in a variety of improvised head- gear to protect ourselves from sunstroke. Despite the intense heat we climbed over everything, from the semi-circular stone seats of the old theatre to the mighty Temple of Artemis with its block built walls and its ten remaining columns.
When we drove on the road became a mere dirt track in places. Thick white dust clouds billowed up from our wheels and the landscape was wholly desert. The glaring light was painful to the eyes. We crossed the Jordan River where there was only the smallest dash of greenery to break the monotony, and then the road plunged down through hot brown hills to the Dead Sea, 1500 feet below sea level. Here we all went to swim, or rather float, in the saltiest patch of water on the face of the earth. It tasted foul, and the unlucky ones with fly bites or minor cuts and scratches were quickly yelping and hurrying out again. Gerald floated around on his back and grandly wrote out his postcards home, and afterwards a clean shower and an iced drink were absolute necessities at the nearby tourist centre.
We spent three days in Old Jerusalem, staying at the Petra Hotel which was only a stone’s throw from the massive city walls built in the sixteenth century by Suleiman the Magnificent when Jerusalem was part of the Turkish Empire. This ancient, Holy city, sacred to the three great religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has seen many conquests. Alexander the Great gathered it into his empire on his way to Egypt. Later came the marching legions of Rome, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Egyptians, the Turks and the British, and in between my travels and the writing of this book it was to be conquered again by the new state of Israel in their six-day war against Jordan and the Arab states. Much history has been written in the dust of the yellow and olive-dressed hills which surround Jerusalem, and the winds of time have blown much of it away. Only the last of the conquerors remain.
However, Jerusalem itself stands as timeless as the winds. Here, and in the lands around, was the stage for all the stories of the Bible. Outside the city walls is the Garden of Gethsemane, a small carefully-tended olive grove that now contains the Church of All Nations. From here a dusty, pebble-strewn path ascends the Mount of Olives beyond. The mount gives panoramic views over Old Jerusalem. The hillside slopes away and is dotted with the worn, bleached tombstones of long dead priests, and beyond, enclosed by the massive, time-mellowed walls is the twisting maze of the city with its narrow, biblical streets.
It is all quietly peaceful in the sunshine, and there are two outstanding points of interest. One is the great, rounded dome over the Church of The Holy Sepulcher, and the other is the magnificent Islamic Mosque, the Dome of The Rock, gleaming like some great, polished golden pearl.
The way back led through St. Stephens gate, and then along the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus Christ had walked with His Cross and a crown of thorns. A little to the right stands the Church of St. Anne, built on the site of the birthplace of the Virgin Mary, and a black-gowned priest will show you the cave below that is said to be the tomb of her parents. At the end of The Way of The Cross is the Holy Sepulcher, inhabited by the priests of many sects, and surrounded by a dark rabbit warren of smaller chapels, monasteries and bazaars. When I saw the Holy Sepulcher it was undergoing some heavy restoration work and was a shambles of slow-moving workmen, cluttered barrows and piles of cement and sand, but nothing could take away the beauty of the small, individual chapels built inside. There is a chapel on the tiny hill of Calvary where Christ was crucified, another is built over the Burial Cave where after three days He was resurrected, and the third and most beautiful of all stands over His Tomb.
All are contained inside the main building, and although historians may dispute some of the finer facts and details, who cares for pedantic historians squabbling in the past dust, not after Truth but for the acceptance of their own views.
The world of Islam in the Holy City of Jerusalem is found in the quiet shaded gardens and courtyards of the Haram-es-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, which is second in importance only to Mecca in the Moslem world. Here stands the vast Al-Aksa Mosque, with seven wide marble-pillared aisles where five thousand worshippers can kneel to pray. Here too stands The Dome or The Rock, which is one or the most beautiful buildings that I have ever seen. It is an octagonal mosque built upon the broad platform of Herod's Temple, and inside is the uneven surface of virgin rock that was the threshing floor of David.
Islamic legend also states that it was the site upon which their common ancestor Abraham intended to sacrifice his son to God, and also that it was from here that the prophet Mohammed ascended to Paradise. Here again there are uncertainties, but while the historians argue the people either believe or they do not. It has always been that way.
Each of the eight sides of the mosque are gorgeously decorated with blue mosaic and flowing, golden text from the Koran, while inside it is all but unbelievable. There is absolutely no part of the interior that is not covered with mosaic, stained glass or splendid decoration. The carpets are deep, plush red, and above the Rock rises the golden dome. I stood inside and felt the presence of God, exactly as I had done in the Holy Sepulcher, in the mosques of Istanbul, and in St. Peter's in Rome. Later I was to experience that same feeling in the most humble and the most magnificent of the Hindu and Buddhist temples that I entered on my way, and while watching the sun rise in crimson glory over the Himalayas.
To me it seems sad that a basic truth has to be torn and divided to fit the petty rules and opinions of priests and men. God is God, the timeless Life Force of the Universe. There is only one God, although our cultural mirrors give us many different definitions and understandings of His nature.
It is as simple as that.
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