“BUSTED!” – PART VI

Front entrance to Zendan Vakilabad, the 1970s prison at Vakilabad, west of Meshed, Khorasan, Iran, before its partial destruction by the prisoners (including the author) in 1978/79 at the end of this series. (A still from a BBC documentary on the prison, made by Adam Curtis in 1977)

1978: MY BEAUTIFUL PRISON LAMPSHADE

“It’s getting better all the time… ”

It was two days after the great feast of Christmas 1977 and every scrap of leftovers had been consumed by the hungry foreign prisoners. A cheerful and upbeat letter from my old Buddhist friend Glenn in Dharamsala, India, arrived at the Negabani, telling me ‘not to worry’, he would get me out of there. Great!

Glenn had heard about my plight through the grapevine and had already sought divinations from reliably clairvoyant Tibetan lamas, asking whether I could be ‘sprung’ from the prison. These divinations had invariably indicated that something could be done about it, and I would not be inside for too long. Glenn had lived amongst some of the senior-most Tibetan lamas in Dharamsala for a number of years and had shown great ability and aptitude for soaking up Tibetan language, lore and religion. For divinations he knew whom to ask, and how to ask for it. He had a good track record with me in such matters and I had plenty of confidence in his know-how.

For example, a few years earlier a mo he’d helped me with had resolved a quandary I’d been in. After living for years in Swat, Kevin had persuaded me to visit the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan colony in Dharamsala, India. I went, fell in love with the place and wanted to live there. But I had to go back to Swat now, where I had so much baggage that I was blocked about how long to stay there winding things up before making the move. I’d built a house in Swat and had an employee, animals, projects, so many things. Should I schedule to wind things up there in one day, a week, a month, six months or even more?

Glenn took me to Trijang Rinpoche, Junior Tutor to the Dalai Lama, for a Tibetan-style divination. The question was: I have to return to Swat before returning to live in Dharamsala, how long should I aim to stay there before my return?

After trekking across the hillside we were ushered in to Trijang Rinpoche’s modest audience room. He was seated cross legged on a raised mattress, in an atmosphere of great sanctity, surrounded by colourful paintings of Buddhas and shiny brass statues in glass cabinets with offering bowls and butter lamps in front of them. He was old, tall, gaunt and a little emaciated-looking, but he smiled as Glenn exchanged greetings and pleasantries with hands pressed together. We were invited to sit on cushions on the floor and butter tea was served by the attendant as Glenn asked my question, mumbling away in a hushed voice, until Trijang Rinpoche nodded and held up his hand. He drew a little circular metal box from inside his robe and popped two dice out into his right hand. He closed his eyes, holding up the hand with the dice inside and concentrating before jiggling the hand a bit and casting them into the box. He then peered at the dice intently before repeating the same process all over again. He did this half a dozen times with brief pauses in between as we waited in hushed expectancy. Eventually he was finished, stashed the dice in their box and put it away. He then sat still for another couple of minutes before leaning forward slightly and speaking to Glenn.

“OK” said Glenn, turning to me after a brief exchange with Trijang Rinpoche, always in Tibetan. “The answer’s plain and simple. Rinpoche says you should stay in Pakistan as long as you like.”

I felt shocked and disappointed to have such an unhelpful answer. We got up and took our leave. “I expected something specific” I said to Glenn as we trudged down the pathway from the house. “That’s completely vague.”

“No,” said Glenn, “Sometimes the answer might seem a bit obscure. You’ll have to think about it.”

By the time we came to a chai shop it had dawned on me and everything was becoming clear. I would go back to Swat and do whatever I felt liked, stay as long as I liked. Like magic, all my indecisiveness and doubts had dissolved away and disappeared. I felt relieved, back on track and empowered. In fact, I stayed based in Swat while making occasional forays to Dharamsala for a month or two. It was hardly two days away, taking local transport, so I enjoyed the best of both worlds. Glenn’s mo solution had worked out perfectly. Now, he’d heard of my new predicament, being thrown in an Iranian dungeon, and once again he figured he could help to fix it. I did not hold up any real hopes, but one never knows. There was no harm in trying.

Of more immediate concern to me, ensconced in Block one, was that fixed to the inside the front wall in my cell, just under the level of the top bunk, was a bare light bulb. It not only flooded my new bunk-desk in bright light, but also glared uncomfortably into my right eye from the side as I stood up to the ‘desk’. On a thick, almost rigid black cable, the bulb stuck out from the wall on the passageway side. I decided to follow the fashion of some in the block and construct a hand-made lampshade over it, as Richard, Giorgio and Anker had done in their cells. It would illuminate the desk while shading my eyes from its glare. Although lampshades were ‘forbidden’, the guards overlooked them, unless, of course, you did something to annoy them. I asked Giorgio how to go about getting one sorted.

“No problem, Rosbif” said Giorgio. “I help you. I speak with this shopkeeper for a good box to make one. Then you can use my cutting-knife to make nice holes in the box. Then I give you colour ‘cellophano’, and glue, to make nice light in your ufficio. I show you, OK?”

Giorgio soon did as he said. The shopkeeper brought me a solid and sturdy cardboard shoe-box and I placed it over the light bulb. It was a good fit, the perfect size for the job. I carefully cut out large, kidney-shaped holes placed in the top and side through which enough light would continue to shine down and across my desk, but no longer in my eyes. Giorgio offered me a folder of cellophane sheets of different tints to choose from. I took orange and yellow, cut out pieces to fit and glued them carefully over the holes. Then I cut a slit in the end of the box to slide it onto the light fitting, making a tight fit and in an optimal position. I put it aside for the glue to harden before fixing it properly over the bulb next day, which happened to be New Year’s Day 1978.

A few months before, a television set had been fixed in block one so the prisoners could see state propaganda broadcasts and sometimes the Shah making important speeches to his people. Hung from the ceiling, there was only one channel, Iranian State TV which, judging by some of the other programmes that were shown, prided itself on its total lack of Islamic religiosity. One December night, it showed the Senegalese State female dance troupe on a visit to Teheran, giving a prime-time performance of a tribal dance. Leaving little or nothing to the imagination, a large group of gorgeous and nubile young Senegalese women wearing only skimpy grass skirts shook their bare breasts vigorously from side to side and up and down (and round and round) to a rapid drumbeat while bending over, straightening up, waving their arms aloft, stamping their feet to the beat and pirouetting in unison. This spectacle lasted for the best part of an hour. Most of the Iranian prisoners and guards were too embarrassed to be seen watching and moved away, muttering darkly to themselves.

And so on New Year’s Eve 1977, the guards summoned everyone to watch on this television the proceedings of an Iranian state banquet in honour of US President Jimmy Carter and his wife. The President and his entourage were being hosted by the Shah of Iran, the Shahbanou, the generals and VIP guests at the Niavaran Royal Palace in Teheran. The Shah and Carter were toasting each other with champagne whilst proclaiming their mutual admiration and pledging unwavering friendship between Iran and the USA; Iran, said Carter, was the USA’s foremost and closest ally in the whole world. The champagne flowed and the cameras rolled.

I stood in the Block One crowd with Ali, Khosravi and a few foreigners, watching the proceedings on the black-and-white screen in wonder. There was so-called Plastic-nose himself, raising his champagne flute to toast Jimmy Carter and the American guarantors of the Shah and sponsors of his dictatorship. It was only a few years since he had abolished the last vestiges of democracy in Iran, buoyed by ballooning oil revenues, arms purchases and adulation for Iran’s apparent success that had all followed the rise in the price of oil in 1973. Obsessed by rapid economic growth he had progressed from narcissism to megalomania and, eventually, hubris – the kind of hubris which prompted him to stand up and drink champagne in public as leader of a deeply Muslim country. He assumed that merciless repression by SAVAK the secret security police would suffice to deal with any noisy dissenters.

“Crikey, look at that,” Richard whispered in my ear at one point, “It’s not going to go down too well with the populace. A bit provocative, showing Mr and Mrs Plastic-nose supping champagne in public like that!”

The ‘political’ prisoners in the upper stories were also probably watching and listening furtively from the shadows, but we did not look up; we never did. This, in transpired, broadcast served to bring on the Islamic revolution which was already beginning to bubble and fester out of our sight and knowledge.

The U.S. Public Broadcasting Service has a History Series ‘American Experience’ which mentions this event. Its account of the build-up to the 1979/80 Iranian Hostage Crisis reports as follows:

“President Carter toasted the Shah at a state dinner in Tehran, calling him ‘an island of stability’ in the troubled Middle East … What the President also knew, but chose to ignore, was that the Shah was in serious trouble. As opposition to his government mounted, he had allowed his secret police, SAVAK, to crack down on dissenters, fuelling still more resentment. Within weeks of Carter’s visit, a series of protests broke out in the religious city of Qom, denouncing the Shah’s regime as ‘anti-Islamic.’”

The full text of the speeches is recorded here: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=7080. This occasion and Carter’s ‘an island of stability’ remark became famous, if not notorious, being repeated in numerous accounts of modern US/Iran relations covering the period as the spark that triggered the Islamic Revolution. That “the Shah was [already] in serious trouble” referred to the country-wide protests in October 1977, shortly after my own imprisonment in Iran. They arose after Ayatollah Khomeini’s eldest son and chief aide Mostafa Khomeini mysteriously died aged 46. The people, convinced he had been murdered by SAVAK, took to the streets in protest in a wave of anti-Shah demonstrations across Iran. The death became a cause célèbre, sparking off controversy and allegations of the political assassination of this important religious figurehead.

In fact, the subsequent “series of protests” that “broke out in the religious city of Qom” described as following on “within weeks” after the notorious 31/12/1977 state banquet really got started in just over one week, on the 9th of January to be precise (note the date). This date, the 9th, is confirmed in other reliable accounts. And therein hung another tale that was intertwined with the sub-plot of Glenn’s pujas in India [this will be fully explained in Part VII, to follow].

“John Mitchell, Negabani!” came a shout from the block guards at ten o’clock next morning, 1st January 1978, just as I was just about to fix my pretty lampshade to the wall. What could it be now? I put it down again, passed out through the block gates and headed down the corridor to the central office where Captain Farriman held court.

“You are very lucky” said the happily smiling Farriman, “you have another parcel.” This time it wasn’t a large consignment of vodka and orange but C G Jung’s heavy, serious-looking psychology text book ‘The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious’ sent by my sister Trevena as I had requested [see “BUSTED!” Part IV]. Farriman unwrapped and checked it carefully to ensure nothing illegal was concealed in the pages. He also handed me another letter that had just arrived from Glenn, in India.

Walking back down the long corridor I flipped quickly through the book’s dense and well-annotated pages. They were interspersed with plentiful and intriguing illustrations. Many were engravings and old woodcuts of medieval or archaic symbols, scenes and motifs with dream-like and resonant images.

Reviewing it in my cell I prepared myself with pleasant anticipation to start reading it, hoping to extract some useful meaning. Meaning! With Jung’s help even that simple word would soon take on fresh and vital significance in my mind to an almost obsessive degree. I flipped through, checking the sources of certain illustrations that appealed to me. They were taken from classical texts and the writings of all kinds of philosophers, prophets, seers, mystics, crazy visionaries and alchemists, all the way back right through the ages to vestiges of prehistoric times in the form of grave-contents, cave paintings and sculptures. I could see that it was as full of promise as I’d hoped and expected after reading Jung’s biography the month before [see “BUSTED!” Part IV]. I felt excited by the prospect.

I placed the book and the new letter from Glenn on my desk, put the finishing touches to my new handmade shoe-box lampshade, fixed it neatly over the bare bulb and switched on. It projected a warm, soft clear light over my study area just like a desk lamp. I could even pull it around on its thick black cable to adjust the beam onto the exact place where I wanted it to shine.

“It is strong enough to last the entire time I’ll be here,” I said to myself out loud, absentmindedly admiring my beautiful and robust new fitting. I was all set up and ready to start work in earnest. There was no time to lose. I had to make the most of the opportunity and not let it go to waste. 1978! It was going to be a momentous year. I laid Jung on my ‘desk’, flooded in yellow light, but before delving into it I climbed up on my bunk to read Glenn’s letter. It might be important and indeed, it was.

Glenn reported that he had commissioned a further series of mos about my case with someone he had discovered called “Geshe Rinpoche”, a little-known lama who was not attached to any big monastery, a recluse who lived as a hermit in a shack. Glenn had good relations with him; amongst the Dharamsala cognoscenti he was reputed to be a prime divination expert for problems in which wrathful pujas would be needed. So Glenn had persuaded him to go into my case in depth. All the indications confirmed that if a long series of complex rituals involving certain wrathful spiritual beings could be discretely carried out by the right set of monks who were experts in this work, and at the right time, then my imprisonment would likely be over within the year, that was, by the end of 1978.

They had observed more mos to establish the most auspicious astrological date to commence the rituals, which was crucial. ‘Geshe Rinpoche’ had finally settled on a day in the Tibetan calendar that corresponded with the 8th of January in the western calendar for 1978, as the optimal kick-off date. Glenn wrote that on this basis he had gone ahead and engaged some ritual experts to collect all the necessary offerings and special substances to start carrying out the ‘pujas’ from early in the morning from that date onwards. I could leave it all to them and not worry about a thing, Glenn assured me.

I wrote back to thanking him profusely for all the trouble he was taking on my behalf and giving him my news from within the prison, filling him in on all that I was up to. I then turned my attention to my new studies and set my desk up with an exercise book and pens for notes and opened the book. I worked my way through the introductory pages and essays. The text was dense and complex with plenty of long words and I found it challenging to follow. To facilitate my full comprehension of all the loaded sentences I decided to write a précis of Jung’s text in my own words as I ploughed my way through it. It was riveting and the hours and days began to fly by unnoticed as I was absorbed into Jung’s world of archetypes and the collective unconscious.

The book kicked off with the concept of archetypes as the mode of expression of the collective unconscious in as dreams, religious beliefs, myths, and fairytales. Archetypes in dreams assume primitive and naive forms; those in religious dogma are more complex, due to conscious elaboration. Common examples of ‘personifiable’ archetypes: the shadow (one’s suppressed, hidden nature); the anima/animus (the concealed opposite gender deep within each individual), and meaning, which appears as wise figures. Archetypes of transformation, however, manifest in situations like rites of passage, or ordeals one has to face. Leaning of these, I started to become aware of them. They were emerging into my consciousness. I started having bizarre dreams and kept a notebook by my pillow, to write them down at night, so that I could recall and think about them later.

Next came the collective unconscious. It was defined, its functions and modes of manifestation described. Another layer of unconscious mind beyond the personal, but accessible through dreams and myths and so forth, it contains the archetypes. ‘Pre-existent thought forms’ like blueprints these give form to psychic material which can then enter one’s consciousness. Vast like an ocean, collective mind contains the sum total of all human experiences since consciousness arose. Archetypes are also likened to pre-existent, instinctive behaviour patterns, expressed in endlessly recurring situations in life like the idea of rebirth or advancement by overcoming fears. Dreams, active imagination, fantasies and delusions are defined, compared and analysed, giving many examples. Resistance to archetypes which press for emergence into consciousness and completion can result in neurosis and Jung gives examples of this from his own experience with patients.

These broad concepts are then developed and expanded upon, always based on real examples of many kinds and forms. The phenomena are analysed in more detail, one by one, drawing on historical sources going back to Plato and beyond. I delved deeper, fully absorbed in discovering this new world of ‘Mind’ in this new precise, definitive and objective manner.

Perhaps I was compensating for my own attenuated education, having left school abruptly at 16 to plunge from being a mere student into what appeared to me as ‘real life’.

Giorgio and his compatriot Paulo came by my cell one morning and looked in to see what I was up to. “What you doin’ there, Rosbif?” asked Giorgio, looking curiously at my new desk set-up.

“Psychology” I said. “All you crazy people in this crazy place, I need to understand psychology. Otherwise – I go crazy myself.”

“You are already more crazy than anyone” said Giorgio, “So better keep reading.”

“You’re dead right” I said, “This is to help me understand myself. I’m discovering a lot of things. Maybe then I’m sorted out I can help you lot.”

Giorgio entered to see the book more closely and was impressed with its appearance and the illustrations. “Seriously, I’m interested. What’s it all about?”

“The unconscious mind. The mind has two sides: the conscious mind which we use all day, every day. Normal mind: awake, perceptive, thinking, feeling. But the unconscious mind is there all the time as well. It’s full of things you are not aware of. But it works together with the conscious mind in your life development process, your learning, your understanding. So you need to listen to it, if you can, and let it work.”

“What? Give me some examples, this is interesting.”

“Dreams. They are full of the contents of your unconscious mind, but they speak another language. Intuition. Realisations of what you have to do, inspiration from inside, they come up from the unconscious mind, through signs and symbols. You have to check your psychology. Why are you such a joker? Why do you like paying tricks and fooling people? It’s your inner nature, but it can change and develop into other skills. The mind changes all the time and we can make it change more by working on understand what the unconscious is trying to tell us.”

“No kidding? Shit, Rosbif, this is very interesting. I wanna know more. But we were just going for a training session in the yard. Wanna come? Half an hour. You need a break. I know some good exercises to develop your physical. Then you give me some exercises later to develop my mental, OK?”

“OK, Giorgio, it’s a deal. Let’s go.”

We went out and Giorgio gave an intensive training session to eight or ten of us, including Anker, Paulo, Bernard, Ted and Ali. Warm up, stretches, spring-ups, sprinting short distances, jumping around in different ways.

Afterwards, some of the fittest like Giorgio and Bernard went for an additional workout in the gym, the rest went for a rest, a chai, and I did more study, maybe a spot of gym, sometimes visit the library, all before lunch. Sometimes, there was time for a game of chess or backgammon, but it was hard to beat Iranians. As time went on, we found more positive activities and little time was left for static games. What with the intensive exercise we took, running, walking, hard training sessions and workouts in the gym, by the time lunch came round we were also getting really hungry and those who worked the hardest were very fit, but losing weight.

“The food in the ashpazkhana is crap” was the refrain. “It’s so low in nourishment.”

“How can we get a regular source of more food?” I asked as we all sipped chai in Giorgio’s cell one morning after a heavy workout. Ted, the taciturn, large-bodied German of the 400 kilos of hash, had a suggestion.

“You know, for lunch and dinner, the queue from the block, sixty or seventy men, takes a while to go all round the wall, pass the holes where they fill your bowl, and come back out to the tables. What I do sometimes, when nobody’s looking, if I get near to the front of the queue, I get my stuff, hurry back to the table, quickly eat what’s good, throw the rest in the bin, and the queue is still going around with the people who came last. So I just go to join the end of the queue and get another bowlful!”

“Brilliant!” said Anker. “So you double your food! But what if they catch you?”

“They never bother” said Ted with a wink. “Sometimes I’m sure they notice but they just look the other way.”

“So I tell you what” said Giorgio, ever the sportsman looking for new games. “Let’s make a food-grabbing team. We all push to the front of the queue, get our ration, come to a table, dump it on the table and go round again. But someone needs to stay with the food and pick out the good bits.”

“Yeah” said Anker, “then by the time they come around again it’s all sorted, dump it again and run for a third lot!” We laughed.

Yeah” said Ted, who enjoyed cooking and had an illegal home-made cook-stove hidden in his cell. “It’s possible; let’s give it a try. I tell you what. We all go around twice, we save all the good stuff, everyone keeps his rice, we bring it all back to the block, and then we heat it up and re-cook it with some nice spices that I can get. Then we eat it relaxed, at home in our cell with our rice.”

“Great idea” I said, clapping my hands. “Let’s do it!”

“Let’s go for it,” said Anker. “Play it cool fist, low profile, see how it goes. If it works we can push it further. Those cops are not out to get us. They want a peaceful time here. If we don’t bother them, they normally let us get away with it.” Anker had been here longest, so we listened to his advice.

When “nahar” was called for the midday ‘meal’, we were ready. Slow-moving Ted volunteered to be the baseman. We all got up to the block doors earlier with our bowls and spoons, in front of all the Iranians, and when the gates opened we walked quickly and followed the plan. There were three cops escorting us from the block. One stood by the mess door, another watched the men eating at the tables, the third one stood on a table right over the hatches where the food was doled out as the queue passed beneath him. If anyone tried any funny business with the servers, he would abuse them and whack them or kick them to get them to move on. Ted stood by the halfway table sorting through the pile, the rest of us went for a second helping. It went smoothly and there were even stragglers still coming in from the block after we’d been round twice. I went round a third time and nothing happened.

Back in the block Ted did a great job cooking up the good meat and veggies and whatever he had extracted from about fifteen servings of lunch. He added curry, pepper and salt, olive oil and herbs de Provence that Peter the Painter had got from his wife and shared with him, being a fellow German. It was the best meal we’d had since Christmas, which was only a few weeks ago.

From then on, we honed the technique, improved the takings, made more stoves, Giorgio also cooked Italian style, we got more spices in and generally we ate much better. The cops turned a blind eye and never interfered. We sometimes went around four, even five times. Only Richard and Vince looked askance at us, as if it was amusing, or as if such a scam was below their dignity. They said nothing and didn’t ask to join in so we left them to their own devices.

We made loose teams of three, that seemed to work best. I usually teamed up with Ted and his German off-sider Berndt. Ted would be the anchor and would stand there stripping the meat off the bones, discarding the bones and piling up the meat. Meanwhile Berndt and I would be running the 50-metres hurdles, vaulting over the tables to rejoin the queue before it ended and they closed the hatch.

The cookers were easily made from small Nescafe tins, full of oil, with multiple holes punctured all around the edge of the lid and wicks pushed into them, and a wire structure to hold the metal bowl with food in it at the right height over the flames. The stew, once cooked, would then be divvied up between us to add to the rice we all ready had. To us hungry guys it was often a full, hot and tasty meal. That left breakfast as the only poor meal, which hardly anyone ever bothered to get out of bed at 5 AM to collect, unless I was awake early and wanted the tea, or to collect butter for cooking, or cheese if it was Tuesday.

“How great that when we work as a team, we all can benefit” said Giorgio, his mouth full of delicious curry.

“Too right” said I. The use of spices gave me another idea. In my camper van’s kitchenette I had cooking pots and plates and a small stock of foodstuffs including a box of spices. One of the airtight dried spice tubs, with holes in the top to shake out the shredded leaves, was labelled “Ground parsley”, but in reality I had packed it full of very good grass. I conferred with Anker and Giorgio about the risks of trying to get this into the block.

“No problem” they said, “in Iran they don’t have grass; they don’t know what it is, I doubt if they would recognise it; they use only opium and hash. If it’s in a box with a bunch of other spices and cooking stuff, they aren’t gonna know. Maybe the inspectors at the border would find it and know what it is, but not these dumb cops in the prison. Go to the Negabani, ask Farriman to get some foodstuffs from your luggage in the Basrassi, they might check it but they won’t know what it is. You could always argue about it. ‘Ground parsley’! Very good!”

“OK” I said, “and I’ll get all the rest for our food-stocks and kitchen. There are some dried foods, condensed milk, coffee, all that stuff, and a few tins. I even have good Italian olive oil and tomato puree, as well as spaghetti. They’ll never notice the grass in the middle of all that.”

“OK” said Giorgio, “I cook you all Italian food, spaghetti a la Bolognese! We will have everything we need. We take all the meat we need from the kitchen.

The cop checking what I was bringing actually opened the tub, like all the other things, and sniffed it, but it apparently fooled him. The next afternoon and evening we were partying in the cell, smoking, listening to music, having a ball, just laughing our heads off with the ridiculousness of the situation. And then Giorgio cooked spaghetti à la Bolognese. All that was missing was a bottle of Chianti.

Our guards knew the food was insufficient for us and indulged us, as foreign guests in Iran, by letting us get away with our daylight robbery of the strictly rationed food. In fact the food budget meant for the prisoners was being creamed off by the officers, leaving the absolute minimum for us. A ladle full of “Beans and Bones”, the watery gruel with just a few beans and bones in it, was the standard fare. Most of the meat had been taken by the cops before it got to the kitchen stores. The Iranian prisoners had their own ways of supplementing their diets, being local, but we were far from home and the cops must have felt sorry for us. We tried to be good with them and they reciprocated in this way. From then on, we had two good meals a day.

It really seemed that things were getting better all the time. The light from my beautiful prison lampshade shone bright and clear.

Author’s original sketch Map of Zendan Vakilabad Prison

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2 Responses to ““BUSTED!” – PART VI”


  • I’ve done it already, Nico, no problem, leave it to me, you have enough other stuff to do!
    Thanks for the appreciation. Part VII is a difficult one and may take a good few days to complete.
    Patience! The only problem with patience is that in the short term it doesn’t work at all! 😉

  • Heh. Looks good, formatting. Maybe some of your photos to break up the text? Will try to dload the video. Achha.

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