Following the apocalyptic explosion in Beirut, Lebanon on 4th August 2020, I wrote two articles 'Beirut Blast: Beyond Belief' and 'Lebanon at a Loss: Once Again'. These pieces appeared in 'Dhaka Courier' weekly newsmagazine on 14th and 28th August 2020. I received a number of reminisces from some who had visited a city often cited as 'Paris of the Middle East' or 'Pearl of the Orient' and a country called 'Switzerland of the Middle East.' Lebanon's 'Gilded Age.' For those whose feet have touched Lebanese soil; the heart holds a pull for this land. The Lebanese civil war years (1975-1991) and more recent regional countries in conflict has since long left Lebanon beyond one's travel itinerary. However; association with some global Lebanese diaspora and their narratives brings a city and country within one's range of familiarity - a mechanism of global vibrancy. Lebanese culinary culture is widespread. Their sense of joie de vivre and cosmopolitanism makes them charming friends. Historical buffs rave about the country at cross-roads; a cradle of civilization, a nexus of the East meeting the West. This last article in the trilogy on Lebanon evolved from recollections I received from readers of the first two articles; a memory interactive trail. There are two features that crop up frequently in reference to Lebanon; Lebanese cuisine and Lebanese hospitality. Following excerpts are from my book 'Fragrance of the Past: A Middle Eastern Itinerary.' (2007)
Raana Haider, Dhaka
Excerpts from the chapter 'A Culinary Experience at Pepe's Fishing Club in Byblos':
"The purpose of our visit to Byblos, an ancient city a little to the north of Beirut, was to engage in a culinary excursion to 'Pepe's Fishing Club' restaurant. The secondary goal - unabashedly - was to take in the harbor city of 'layered civilisations'. I wanted my family to savour the memorable weekend lunches that I remember from the late 1960s. I remember it as if it was yesterday. The innumerable succulent Lebanese mezze (appetisers) more than a generous meal in itself; laid down before us in a setting that was off a picture postcard; a mini ancient port with a tower from the period of the Crusades guarding the entrance to the harbour with colourful fishing boats and tourist cruising boats docked within and the azure blue Mediterranean waters. As we parked in front of 'Pepe's', I was delighted and reassured to find that it was much as I remembered with no glaring changes. After all, the entire exercise was to rediscover a setting and repeat a memorable meal. Happily, I was not disappointed in either."
"Monsieur Pepe Abed is an institution in Lebanon... Born in Mexico to Lebanese emigres, Pepe Abed returned to Lebanon in the early 1960s and opened his restaurant...Today, (2002) he is in his late eighties and a larger than life character. He reminds me of Anthony Quinn in his role as 'Zorba the Greek.'...With my husband (Bangladesh's Ambassador to Lebanon, accredited from Tehran) and daughter standing next to me, I made the introductions and told him that I was a second-generation customer of his (notwithstanding a thirty year gap) who had the pleasure of dining at his table with my parents. (My father had been Pakistan's Ambassador to Lebanon). I was proud to be able to share once again the experience with a third generation customer - my daughter...Pepe Abed introduced us to his second wife, an elegant, classic beauty. As he took us around his place, he twice mentioned that she looked like Sophia Loren. He was not exaggerating. She fulfilled his image - and ours...Eating at 'Pepe's Fishing Club' is a pure gastronomic joy culminating with decadent desserts a la Libanaise. In the company of our Lebanese host, a gourmand whose knowledge and appreciation of Lebanese cuisine is of the highest order; it was a memorable feast."
Excerpts from the chapter 'Beirut: Jewel of the Middle East':
"I entered the bookshop Khayat as I had many times, many decades earlier. I stood there (1999) and gazed around; I was simply looking. A small black and white television was on. Books lay about everywhere; piled on the floor, stacked on shelves, falling all over the place, as if they had been lying around since the last time I was there. Obviously, information technology has not reached Khayat. An elderly couple sitting behind an old desk asked me if I was looking for anything special. I replied that I was 'just looking.' There must have been something about the way I was 'looking' that prompted them to repeat their offer to help. I then told them that I was an old AUB (American University of Beirut) graduate retracing my path in the neighbourhood and that I had once been a frequent customer of theirs. Such warmth and hospitality then followed. I was offered a chair and a cup of Turkish coffee. We reminisced about old times and bit our lips over the tragic years that the city had passed through. (Civil War: 1975-1991). We lamented the passing of earlier days. They insisted I stay and meet their children and grandchildren, and I so wanted to share this moment with them. However, I had to meet my husband at Commodore Hotel for an appointment elsewhere and I most regretfully rushed out."
Juned Choudhury, Dhaka
My friends, Iqbal Dada, Sirajuddowla oilman, and Azad of Singapore Airlines, had done BBA from AUB in the late 1960's. They remained close friends till the two passed away. Azad is now in the USA. My letter (mentioned below) was published in the newsletter of Alliance Francaise, Ctg. a few years back, as it contained some remarks on my arrival days in Paris and Besacon (France).
Thanks. Very interesting reading. My one and only visit to Beirut was in November 1959 on my way to Paris via Rome. The Beirut stopover was due to a deviated and delayed PIA flight. I had written a letter from Besacon to my friend in Karachi describing the journey. I had asked him to send it to my cousin in Dhaka after reading it. My cousin had preserved the letter. I am attaching part of the letter which you may like to read.
The Letter: Since the assassination attempt on Kassem, Baghdad airport is closed. So we overflew it and landed in Beirut at 3pm local time. With the calm sea on one side and sharply rising green hills on the other, Beirut presents a lovely sight. Part of the city is on the plains and part of it on the hills. The wind coming over the warm waters of the Mediterranean keeps the plains warm while in the hilly part of the city it is very cold. We were to stop at Beirut for three hours. So the PIA had arranged an excursion bus for the passengers to be taken around for sightseeing. A Lebanese Christian girl was our guide.
The most beautiful part of the city is a street rising along the slope of a hill with restaurants and hotels overlooking the sea. Most interesting to me was the American University. In the campus with shady trees and well-kept gardens, I met some of the students. It has a very much Western air and education is quite expensive there. As a freshman from Jordan was telling me, its costs him about 400-500Pak. Rs. per month. Considering the gay life in the city I would say the amount is not much. By the time we came back to the airport the sun was a real disc emerging in the sea.
I forgot to mention before that most of the passengers in our plane were from Sylhet. While I was enjoying sightseeing, they were eager to board the plane again and were abusing the guide. (luckily they knew no other language other than their mother tongue). (Mr. Juned Choudhury is a Sylheti).
Rantisi is familiar name for me. Young Rantisi was a Palestinian medical student in Ctg in the 1980's, an ardent hash member. See photo attached; he is on the extreme right. Later, the spokesperson on TV for PLA was Rantisi, who looked like his elder brother. And now this writer, Lady Rantisi. (These lines are in reference to Rima Rantisi, current faculty member of the Department of English at AUB. I quoted her article 'Losing Beirut: On Life in a Shattered City' in my second article 'Lebanon at a loss: Once Again.')
Mustafa Malik, Washington D.C.
Excerpts from https://muslim journey.com. Blog post
Two weeks earlier on December 2 (1971), I had arrived in Beirut on a stint from the Pakistan government. Among the people I had met there was Ihssan Rabah, a Ph.D. candidate from the American University of Beirut who told me that he wanted to learn about 'the civil war in your country.'
The "more or less peaceable' lives of the Lebanese were subsequently shattered by a brutal sectarian civil war. More than 150,000 of them perished and 1 million were displaced during the 1975-1990 conflicts. I spent much of my 1995 visit to Beirut bemoaning the demise of the prosperous, boisterous shining city on the Mediterranean shore. Aside from Cairo, Beirut is the Arab city I have been most excited to visit. My precious memories of the city include my leisurely strolls with friends from An Nahar newspaper, and others, along Hamra Street, the so-called Champs Elysees of the Arab world, which was a hangout of Arab intellectuals, artists, visitors like me, diplomats, millionaires and billionaires. Among my favorite spots on the street were The Strand and Movenpick restaurants, where I used to dine - alone, and with friends. Enduring, too, are my memories of evening rendezvous with friends in my room in The Lord's hotel on the Mediterranean. On one of those evenings, I opened the window. A silence descended in the room as a heavenly scene unfolded before our eyes: gently rolling sea waves sparkling gloriously in the crimson rays of the setting sun.
All that seemed to me now to have "gone with the wind." The city once known as the "Paris of the Middle east" had become a ghost town. Dour-faced managers watched solitary customers at Hamra Street stores. Sparse passerby plodded unhurriedly on the streets once bustled with boisterous crowds. Nearly half of the 180,000 homes and flats destroyed during the civil war were still to be rebuilt. Beirut's population of more than 1 million had dropped to 400,000.
(Via an email, September 2020)
Thank you, Mrs. Raana Haider, for the opportunity to read your illuminating piece. I got to know Beirut as an occasional visitor. I didn't get to research Lebanese history or society, about which you obviously are endowed with notable scholarship. If we ever run into each other, I hope to share more of your insights about the land and people of what used to be Phoenicia.
I visited your alma mater thrice to interview professors, and once had a discussion with a group of AUB students under your famous banyan tree. It looked to me that the AUB, which produced socialists in the 1960s and early 1970s, began to turn up Islamists by the mid-1980s! Now a friend of mine, Richard Khuri, is teaching at the university's philosophy department. (I wrote a review of his book, Freedom, Modernity and Islam.) I don't know if he and Fadlo Khuri (current President of AUB) are related.
Tufail K. Haider, Dhaka
Lebanon has been a monumental tragedy by a nexus of clanship, corruption and festering regional squabbles for external control. The story is long, painful and repetitive. Today, the unfortunate country and its people are once again at a major last ditch fork for either do or perish.
Once a lively cosmopolitan 'Paris' east of the Suez, heart of the legendary Levant, the country is bleeding and seemingly on an anaesthetic platform. Recovery lies in difficult, drastic and fundamental reforms urgently; based on fair and pragmatic inter-clan power sharing, uprooting endemic corruption and over-coming fierce religious divides to foist a nationalistic and patriotic body politic. It is a lofty and tall order.
Momen Choudhury, Dhaka
I have read your article on Beirut blast. This horrible tragedy left me totally speechless and instinctively took me back to my memories of beautiful Beirut half a century ago. It was a pleasant September evening in 1968 when our plane touched down at the modest sized Beirut International Airport. Formalities were few and soon we were out of the airport with the help of a protocol assistant sent from our embassy. He took us to a hotel near our embassy the name of which I have forgotten. It was a comfortable place for our short stay as we were bound for Damascus in less than week on our first diplomatic posting abroad. We were married a short while earlier. Our senior colleague, Mr Abul Ahsan was then the bachelor First Secretary in the embassy and was kind enough to arrange for us to see as much of Beirut as possible himself taking us to iconic St George's and Casino du Liban.
A few days in Beirut was therefore the best option we had for a delayed honeymoon which I always imagined would be in Paris of France. Unfortunately manipulations of a Bengali colleague that early in career landed us in Beirut - the Paris of the East. Then onwards both my wife and I enjoyed our countless weekends in Beirut over the next three years while posted in Damascus. We were dazzled by the night life of Beirut. Every night there was a show- cabaret - in our hotel and for the first time I saw a cavalcade of the most beautiful women in and around our hotel and all over the Hamra area. In fact we were in a city of beautiful women and handsome men all elegantly turned out all the time.
Our weekends in Beirut remain our treasured memories. Damascus turned out to be a jewel of a city - the only living city in the world where history was written on every cobblestone one stepped on. But Beirut had her beguiling and fatal attraction for us every weekend. Travelling through Beqaa valley past Chhatura and over the mountain and through the summer resort of Bhamdoun one would reach Hamra in less than two hours for a day full of activities - weekend after weekend never tired of taking in the beauty of this incredible city. Many a time we spent longer weekends to enjoy glittering Beirut evenings or hop on to a plane for a short vacation in Cyprus - another island of sunshine and history.
Lebanon's past has been inextricably connected with the history of its neighbouring countries -Syria, Palestine and Israel. Beirut in particular and Lebanon in general has suffered beyond belief because of the meddling of these countries as much as its mindless sectarianism since the country came out of the French mandate. The leaders like Camille Chamoun, Pierre Gemayel, Rashid Karame to name a few failed their people in establishing polity based on true democratic norms of equality and non-sectarianism. As a result, the rulers and the ruled became passengers of one miserable sinking boat named Lebanon. A ray of hope in this miserable state of affairs in Lebanon is its cultural identity. The International Festival of Baalbeck virtually reached millions of people in the midst of the pandemic and once again reaffirmed the feeling beautifully expressed by maestro Fazilian 'that culture for the Lebanese is not a luxury but a necessity.'
Parveen Choudhury, Dhaka
Once there was a Lebanon, full beautiful, a land of style and finesse...once upon a time...now there is a Lebanon being mauled, completely destroyed by vested interests...a valley of no return...it is heart rending and my heart aches for Syria and Lebanon and Afghanistan...No hope to see any end to this destruction in my lifetime. I can gauge the love and feelings you have for Lebanon.
Rizwan Ahmad, Toronto
Comment below from Dr. Zaman who read and liked your Beirut article - which I also enjoyed.
Ashraf uz Zaman, Toronto
Wonderful and lucid article on a city I had known superficially. My first contact with Beirut was in 1955 after I was returning from Paris completing my studies at Sorbonne as French Government Scholar. In Beirut, I was guest of my dear Lebanese friend Antoine Medawar, owner of a hotel. Later, during my bureaucratic days, I spent my time in Beirut, parked at Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel and visiting Casino de Liban, in the mountains; transiting for Turkey attending CENTO and later RCD meetings. Those were the days visiting tranquil Beirut, crown jewel of the Arab world. What a tragedy is now facing this Paris of the East? Time has flown too quickly and now I am floating in the sunset boulevard with fading memories. Watching the Mediterranean sea, sitting on a café on Beirut's waterfront used to be quite fun those days.
Waqar Khan, Dhaka
An excellent, nostalgic piece of writing handled deftly by a seasoned writer. It's laced with joy and sorrow and a haunting resonance of what the ancient city should really been all about!
Naim and Raana Hassan, Toronto
Very moving and well-researched. (Both AUB alumni).
Mohammad and Rehana Mohsin, Dhaka
It's indeed so gracious of you to say that you are going to mention in your next write up on Lebanon, of what we casually mentioned about the soft corner, we all have for that exotic city of Beirut and its friendly people; we have had the pleasure of befriending and knowing.
Thanks for keeping us in the loop, while sharing your heart-rending write-up on the City of Beirut, which has just been totally destroyed by unfortunate blasts at the port. Lebanon and its capital Beirut were indeed a playground and Holiday resort not only for the Arab World, but also a historic centre of the Arab World; where indeed both your good-self and your loving Sister Punu spent some prime time, while studying there including in the prestigious American University of Beirut. I also recall that you had written a Book on the City some years ago, and the present write up has some quotes from there.
Your Apa and I have had also known Lebanon and its friendly capital a bit closely since the mid-1960s, as we used to make stop-overs in Beirut while travelling abroad on duties /holidays, and enjoying our short stay in Beirut as well as visiting the famous Casino du Liban, visiting Baalbek and other exotic spots in that beautiful country. What a tragedy now facing this lovely country and its lovely people. May the Almighty help the most friendly people of this land. We hope to circulate your lovely write-up to some friends and Lebanese colleagues who are still around and happily live in Lebanon and elsewhere.
Minnat Khan, Dhaka
Thank you for sending me your reflections on the recent devastation in Beirut. Although the blast had already left me feeling frustrated for the price civilians are paying for the negligence of their government. Your writing made it all the more poignant. Your references to the city and its iconic sites and institutions, one of which was your alma mater, brought everything to life for me and then the impact of the blast became personal. I hope and pray that the Lebanese people's resilience and resolve stay strong and they come through yet another senseless destruction visited upon them.
Omar Mohsin, London
The two articles about Beirut struck a chord with me because I have many wonderful Lebanese friends and thanks to them I've always had the most amazing time on both my visits to Lebanon - in 2007 (when I also visited Syria) and 2011. So many fascinating places - Beirut, Baalbek, Byblos, Beiteddine, Anjar, Sidon, etc.
The recent explosion in Beirut is shocking and tragic beyond words. This is what I wrote (on facebook) at the time:
"Finding it difficult to articulate my utter shock and sadness at what's happened in Beirut.
Lebanon is one of the most fascinating countries I've visited and its people are simply amazing. Thinking of all my wonderful friends there. My heart truly goes out to you all.
Your resilience as a people has helped you to overcome many adversities in the past and will get you through this as well."
I also shared some of my photos of Lebanon. I'm not sure if you're on facebook, but I'm pasting the link here: https://www.facebook.com/omar.mohsin.75/media_set?set=a.923640761583 and type=3
Shayan Khan, Dhaka
Yes a collation of the feedback would be a worthy follow up to your stirring piece. Beirut is a city that has such a storied place in the global imagination and the Lebanese are such great people, I had housemates from there and my heart goes out to them. We were publishing articles on the troubles they were facing even before the blast through our agreement with OpenDemocracy. Strong relations with Bangladesh too, we actually suffered among the highest foreign casualties.
They (housemates) were in North London when I lived in a flat near Edgware, the closest thing to an Arab Quarter in LDN, for some months while pursuing my Master's at UCL, and it was me and a Brazilian with two each from Lebanon and Algeria. But also in Coventry during my first year at university when I lived in halls, it happened to be a tower block and there was a sizeable Lebanese contingent. SOAS, just down the road from UCL, was full of Lebanese students. There were many French citizens too with Lebanese ancestry. My friends among them have mostly not returned to the country though. As for the cuisine, I don't recall much from them but Lebanese cuisine was absolutely a favourite, I am reminded of some of our favourite places to eat, Ranoush, Maroush, plus this other one, all located around West London, being Lebanese. I also had a landlord once in another part of London who was Lebanese and ran a bakery promising authentic Manousheh bread. They were all such good people really, can't recall a bad encounter with any of them.
Mitra Alam, London
A singularly short but sweet memory of Beirut. Whilst my parents were posted in Ankara '65 to '68 we visited Beirut driving through Eastern Turkey crossing into Syria in Latakia and onwards into Lebanon. One memory stands out...my parents spending a much-longed for evening at the Casino (Turkey in those days had no television let alone a casino) whilst I was child-sat by some kind Embassy staff and another of going to the Emporium that was Toyland on Al Hamra to buy my first Barbie doll...
Ramine Haider, Toronto
This article made me so sad. The whole situation is very sad. But beautifully written.
Farida Zaman, Toronto
Thank you so much for sharing. I just finished reading it. What a beautiful tribute, it echoes raw emotions so beautifully exposed. Really moving.
Shameem Hussain, Dhaka
When Dara and I got married in Nairobi in 1969, we took the scenic route home to Dhaka, then East Pakistan. One of our stops was Beirut, where Raana's parents kindly hosted us. Beirut in those days was in its heydays and it was so different to strictly British colonial Kenya! It was very cosmopolitan and everyone spoke passable French, even the taxi drivers. I remember taking a trip to Baalbek to see the Roman ruins. It wasn't so touristy in those days and we had the place all to ourselves. It had a calm and tranquil feel to it. The other place I remember is the Corniche and the road Bab Idriss along it. It was full of fashionable boutiques, with cafes dotted around. It was an enjoyable area for window shopping and having a coffee along the way. It seemed a favourite place for the locals too. One would see many families enjoying the sunset along the promenade.
Tito Chaudhuri, London
It was heart-rending to read your article about Beirut's glorious past of both joy and sadness. I thought of you and the family being there when we heard of the blast on the news. It was covered extensively by the media in Britain and the images were truly horrifying. Goodness knows where they go from here. Your account was very vivid and illustrates how sad you are to witness this devastation, both physical and spiritual. I hope some peace will come to its people.
Naseema Choudhury, Dhaka
Masum and I went to Beirut and Syria in March 1982. The Bangladesh Embassy in Iran was accredited to Lebanon and Syria. It was one of our memorable trips. The other day when I saw the Beirut blast my heart broke. All of a sudden, out of the blue, the blast tore through the people of Beirut and caused this huge trauma. What has happened to them in Beirut? It was a real tragedy. I know Raana you have deep memories with Beirut. Your father was posted in Beirut and you had studied there too.
Tanveer Haque, Dhaka
Thanks for sharing. Poignant, thought provoking and so informative. My father in-law studied in American University of Beirut from 1961 - 1963 and obtained his M. A. in Education from there. Subsequently he obtained his Ph.D in 1983. Eva and I were married in 1978. He passed away in 1994. He was a civil servant, served in Islamabad (1968 - 1970) and retired from government service in 1991. He passed away in 1994 aged 65. Sorry for the digression, actually Beirut brought back these memories. We've never visited Beirut. Hope Beirut will regain its venerable position in the not too distant future.
Nahar Khan, Vancouver
It has been a very insightful and educational read for me.
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, London
It was a touching article and I wish I had been lucky enough to visit Beirut in its heydays.
Valli de vries, Hague
Yes quite shocking and the stupidity of it is unbelievable. Excellent article. Written from the heart. It must be hard for you to see this country disintegrate like this; after what it has been in the 1960s. I finished a book written by a Lebanese journalist Kim Ghattas titled 'Black Wave.' It's more about Iran and its influence on the world.
Rumi Saifullah, Dhaka
This is one of the couple in an art and culture network I am part of who really liked your article on Beirut as they had lived in Beirut for some time.
Abdul Jesani, Dubai
"Hi Rumi, This is Abdul Jesani. Grateful if you would please share Raana Haider's contact details. Rosila and I used to live in Beirut. I used to be responsible for Unilever's business in the region and so I gained a deep understanding of Lebanon, its environment, politics and the amazing people. I would love to hear more from Raana.
Dale Taylor, Edmonton, Canada
I appreciate Raana Haider's articles and recollections of Beirut. It truly is a sad situation. Like in all countries everywhere, people deserve good governance and progress starts from there. Otherwise, there is no way forward.
I have fond recollections of Beirut, and nothing frustrates me more than unrealized or thwarted potential. I started my international school teaching career in the Middle East and Beirut was our go to place to escape to a more moderate and liberal culture. It definitely felt more tolerant, open, and multicultural than the Gulf country where I worked. Besides, Beirut was a lot of fun where food and drinks seemed to flow freely.
While first in Beirut in 1996, I stayed with two lovely Lebanese sisters, Hala and Jumana, who worked at the international school. Their generosity was immense. We never seemed to stop eating. I still think fondly of the garlic chicken at Lala Farouch. Additionally, somehow Joumana would conjure up the best chocolate, and in a land where supplies were scarce at the time. We also attended wonderful cultural music and dance events and even went up the teleferique in Jounieh. It did stop mid-stream and there was plenty of screaming, but it allowed us to bond while terrifyingly swinging over the hills of Beirut. Joumana and Hala lived through the civil war, and though they managed to catch up, their education was severely truncated. These women are the most dynamic people I know, and I can't help but think what their lives could have been if there had been no war.
Speaking of war, the Lebanese filmmaker, Nadine Labaki portrays the concept of civil war in Lebanon best in her 2011 film, Where Do We Go Now. Fed up with warring factors, Christian and Muslim women try to bring peace and order to their villages and homes. Like most of her work, the story is beautifully told with light humour and also delivers a strong political message. Supporting Lebanese artists is one way for the global community to assist Lebanon. Holding the Lebanese government accountable and demanding good governance is another.
Fairouz, Lebanon's legendary diva
'Li Beirut' ('For Beirut'), Fairouz's signature song was written and sung following the country's civil war (1975-1991). The famously reclusive 85 year old singer of iconic stature in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world is a cherished symbol of peace and unity in Lebanon. Once again, 'Li Beirut' returns to haunt many following the 2020 Beirut blast and its lingering aftermath.
From my heart a greeting of peace to Beirut
And kisses to the sea and the houses,
To a rock shaped like the face of an old fisherman.
She is wine from the spirit of the people
From its sweat (the people), she is bread and jasmine.
So how did its taste become the taste of fire and smoke
A glory of ashes, for Beirut.
Of blood, of a child held in its palm
My city has extinguished its lantern
She (my city) closed its door
Became at night alone
Alone with the night
You are mine...You are mine
Oh embrace me; you are mine
My banner, and the stone of tomorrow, and the waves of my travel
The wounds of my people have blossomed
The mothers' tears have blossomed
You, Beirut are mine
You are mine
Oh, embrace me.
*English translation of Arabic lyrics.*
Raana Haider is the author of 'Fragrance of the Past: A Middle Eastern Itinerary', Tara-India Research Press, New Delhi, 2007. She has an association of many decades with Lebanon and the Middle East. This is the third instalment of a trilogy written in the wake of the tragedy that struck Beirut Port in August, 2020. You can read the earlier parts here, and here.
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