Early in 1998, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney staged an exhibition entitled “Orientalism: From Delacroix to Klee.” It contained 124 paintings and 50 photographs, most of which were produced by European artists in the nineteenth century on subjects in North Africa and the Levant. In the notes published in the exhibition catalogue, the aesthetic authority whose name is mentioned most frequently is not, as one might expect, an art critic, but the literary critic Edward Said. What the paintings confirmed, patrons were told, was Said’s thesis about the “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture” and “the aggressiveness necessitated by the colonial expansion of the European powers.” This endorsement was strong enough to create a queue of buyers at the gallery bookshop, all eager to procure the prominently displayed, recently revised Penguin edition of Said’s celebrated work, Orientalism.
Some of these purchasers may well have been puzzled by the cover of Said’s book, which features a reproduction of a painting by one of the artists prominently featured in the exhibition, the Viennese-born, Paris-based Ludwig Deutsch, who did most of his work between 1885 and 1905. Titled A Guard with a Zither Player in an Interior, the cover picture is one of a series by Deutsch of scenes inside North African palaces and harems. To the untutored eye, these paintings seem fabulous. The architecture is sumptuous, the clothing and ornaments are rich and lavish. The whole effect appears to be a highly romanticized celebration of Islamic culture. Moreover, the Nubians standing guard at Deutsch’s dwellings, like the black servant attending Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment, seem to be making a political point, suggesting that it is their Arab masters who are the imperialists in Africa. And yet the exhibition catalogue assures the spectator that this uninformed impression must be naïve, because art critics who follow Said have determined that these paintings are primarily a reflection of European arrogance and Western prejudices: “the idea of Oriental decay, the subjection of women, an unaccountable legal system—pictorial rhetoric that served a subtle imperialist agenda.”
Edward Said looms large over the current cultural landscape. The influence of this American-Palestinian professor of literature is so great that a remarkable number of commentaries about European art, literature, cinema, music, and history now ritually genuflect to his ideas and to the wider “postcolonial” critique they helped engender. Newspaper reviews of performances of Verdi’s Aida now frequently feel bound to cite Said’s opinion that the opera is “an imperial notion of the non-European world.” Surveys of the American cinema now identify an Orientalist genre that extends from The Sheik through Casablanca to Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the prodigious new reference work Companion to Historiography, edited by Michael Bentley, an entire chapter is devoted to Said, giving him as much space as the whole corpus of ancient Greek historians. Above all, he holds sway over the literary criticism of the nineteenth-century novel. His most recent magnum opus, Culture and Imperialism (1993), is a critique not only of those authors like Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad who wrote about Europe’s colonies and dependencies, but also of such quintessentially domestic writers as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In the new Penguin Classics edition of Austen’s Mansfield Park, the editor’s introduction approvingly quotes Said’s explanation of the Bertram estate “as part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture,” and even the cover blurb feels obliged to call attention to the introduction where “the family’s investment in slavery and sugar is considered in a new postcolonial light.” For analyses of this kind, The New York Times in September 1998 declared him “one of the most important literary critics alive.”
The book that made Said famous was Orientalism, published in 1978. This is a critique of the academic field of Oriental Studies, which has been a scholarly pursuit at most of the prestigious European universities for several centuries. Oriental Studies is a composite area of scholarship comprising philology, linguistics, ethnography, and the interpretation of culture through the discovery, recovery, compilation, and translation of Oriental texts. Said makes it clear that he is not attempting to cover the whole area. His focus is on how English, French, and American scholars have approached the Arab societies of North Africa and the Middle East. He has nothing on the other areas that traditionally comprised the field such as Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Far Eastern cultures, nor does he discuss the attitudes of German, Russian, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese Orientalists. The period he covers is more restricted than the scholarly field, too, extending only from the late eighteenth century to the present, whereas European scholarship on the Orient dates back to the High Middle Ages. Within his time frame, however, Said extends his examination beyond the works of recognized Orientalist academics to take in literature, journalism, travel books, and religious and philosophical studies to produce a broadly historical and anthropological perspective.
His book makes three major claims. The first is that Orientalism, although purporting to be an objective, disinterested, and rather esoteric field, in fact functioned to serve political ends. Orientalist scholarship provided the means through which Europeans could take over Oriental lands. Said is quite clear about the causal sequence: “Colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact.” Imperial administrators like Lord Curzon, a Viceroy of India, agreed that the products of this scholarship—“our familiarity, not merely with the languages of the people of the East but with their customs, their feelings, their traditions, their history, and religion”—had provided “the sole basis upon which we are likely to be able to maintain in the future the position we have won.” In the late twentieth century, the field helps preserve American power in the Middle East and defends what Said calls “the Zionist invasion and colonization of Palestine.” Today, however, there is much less interest in the traditional fields of philology and literature. American academic centers for Middle Eastern studies are more concerned with providing direct advice to the government on public policy. Overall, Said submits, his work demonstrates “the metamorphosis of a relatively innocuous philological subspecialty into a capacity for managing political movements, administering colonies, making nearly apocalyptic statements representing the White Man’s difficult civilizing mission.”
His second claim is that Orientalism helped define Europe’s self-image. “It has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.” The construction of identity in every age and every society, Said maintains, involves establishing opposites and “Others.” This happens because “the development and maintenance of every culture require the existence of another different and competing alter ego.” Orientalism led the West to see Islamic culture as static in both time and place, as “eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself.” This gave Europe a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority. The West consequently saw itself as a dynamic, innovative, expanding culture, as well as “the spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behavior.” This became part of its imperial conceit. In 1810, the French author Chateaubriand called upon Europe to teach the Orient the meaning of liberty which he, and everyone after him, believed the Orientals knew nothing about. Said says he thereby provided the rationale for Western imperialism, which could be described by its perpetrators not as a form of conquest, but as the redemption of a degenerate world.
Thirdly, Said argues that Orientalism has produced a false description of Arabs and Islamic culture. This happened primarily because of the essentialist nature of the enterprise—that is, the belief that it was possible to define the essential qualities of Arab peoples and Islamic culture. These qualities were seen in uniformly negative terms, he says. The Orient was defined as a place isolated from the mainstream of human progress in the sciences, arts, and commerce. Hence: “its sensuality, its tendency to despotism, its aberrant mentality, its habit of inaccuracy, its backwardness.” Where this approach first goes wrong, Said says, is in its belief that there could be such a thing as an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche. No one today, he points out, would dare talk about blacks or Jews using such essentialist clichés. Where Orientalism goes even further astray, he claims, is its anachronistic assumption that Islam has possessed a unity since the seventh century, which can be read, via the Koran, into every facet of, say, modern Egyptian or Algerian society. The notion that Muslims suffer such a form of arrested development not only is false, he maintains, but also ignores more recent and important influences such as the experience of colonialism, imperialism, and, even, ordinary politics.
The faults of Orientalism, moreover, have not been confined to analyses of the Orient. Said claims there have been counterparts in “similar knowledges” constructed about Native Americans and Africans where there is a chronic tendency to deny, suppress, or distort their systems of thought in order to maintain the fiction of scholarly disinterest. In other words, Said presents his work not only as an examination of European attitudes to Islam and the Arabs but also as a model for analysis of all Western “discourses on the Other.”
This strategy has worked remarkably well. Today, twenty years after his work was first published, Said is widely regarded by students of literature and cultural studies as not only one of the founders of the postcolonial movement in criticism and of multiculturalism in politics, but still one of their chief gurus. This is despite the fact that his work was not original, as Said himself acknowledges. It is a synthesis and elaboration of two separate theses. One was an analysis that emerged among a number of Muslim academics working in Europe in the 1960s. Said cites the Coptic socialist author Anwar Abdel Malek, who wrote in France using the then latest Parisian versions of Freudian and Marxist theory. He accused the Orientalists of being “Europocentric,” of failing to pay enough attention to Arab scholars like himself, of being obsessed with the past, and of stamping all Orientals with “a constitutive otherness, of an essentialist character.” This essentialist conception of the peoples of the Orient, Abdel Malek wrote, expresses itself through an “ethnist typology … and will soon proceed with it towards racism.”
The other source of Said’s inspiration also derived from Paris in the Sixties. This is the writing of Michel Foucault, especially his notion that academic disciplines do not simply produce knowledge but also generate power. Said uses Foucault to argue that Orientalism helped produce European imperialism. “No more glaring parallel exists,” Said says, “between power and knowledge in the modern history of philology than in the case of Orientalism.” He also borrowed from Foucault the notion of a “discourse,” the ideological framework within which scholarship takes place. Within a discourse, all representations are tainted by the language, culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer. Hence there can be no “truths,” Said argues, only formations or deformations. No scholar or writer can rise above these limitations, and even a towering figure like Louis Massignon, who dominated French Orientalism until the 1960s, was no more than “a kind of system for producing certain kinds of statements, disseminated into the large mass of discursive formations that together make up the archive, or cultural material of his time.”
Said quickly assures us that putting it this way does not dehumanize poor Louis. But what it does mean is that “every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was consequently a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” Note that this is not a contingent matter. Said is not merely talking about what Europeans actually did say, but rather what they possibly could say. In short, the prevailing discourse renders Europeans, of necessity, racists.
Before pointing out some of the problems with these arguments, it should be acknowledged that Said does score a few hits. He shows that there were plenty of nineteenth-century European travel writers and journalists who visited the Orient and quickly developed an ill-informed opinion of the Arabs and their religion. It is a surprise to find the historians Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt expressing some agreement with such views. It is not so surprising to find genuine racists of the period—like Joseph Arthur Gobineau, whose Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races later provided the Nazis with a rationale—espousing such views.
Although Said makes excuses for him, one of the worst offenders in this regard was plainly Karl Marx. Said cites the following passage:
We must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… . England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating—the annihilation of the Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.
But none of these examples, nor indeed all of them combined, are sufficient to sustain Said’s thesis. It is not difficult to show that each of his three main claims about Orientalism is seriously flawed.
For a start, he should have realized that Abdel Malek’s analysis of the essentialist failings of Oriental scholarship and Foucault’s thesis that knowledge always generates power are quite incompatible. If, as Malek and Said claim, Orientalism’s picture of the Arabs is false, then it is difficult to see how it could have been the source of the knowledge that led to the European imperial domination of the region. According to Said, Orientalist essentialism is not knowledge, but a series of beliefs that are both distorted and out of date. Surely, though, if these beliefs are wrong, they would have contributed to poor judgment, bad estimates, and mistaken policies. Hence the political power of Western imperialism must have been gained despite them, not because of them.
In fact, Said’s whole attempt to identify Oriental Studies as a cause of imperialism does not deserve to be taken seriously. The only plausible connection he establishes between Oriental scholarship and imperialism is the example of the Comte de Volney, who wrote two travel books on Syria and Egypt in the 1780s suggesting that the decaying rule of the Ottoman Empire in those countries made them ripe for political change. Napoleon used Volney’s arguments to justify his brief, ill-fated expedition to Egypt in 1798, though Volney himself was an opponent of French involvement there. But nowhere else does Said provide an analysis of the thoughts and reasons of the imperial decision-makers at the time they actually entered upon Europe’s Oriental adventures. At most, Said establishes that Orientalism provided the West with a command of Oriental languages and culture, plus a background mindset that convinced it of its cultural and technological advance over Islam. But these are far from sufficient causes of imperial conquest since they explain neither motives, opportunities, nor objectives.
Said gives the impression of offering more when he cites speeches and essays by Lord Cromer, Arthur Balfour, and Lord Curzon that paid some recognition to the work of Orientalist scholarship in helping to manage the Empire. But all of these quotations come from works written between 1908 and 1912, that is, more than twenty-five years after the peak of Britain’s imperial expansion. Rather than expressing the aims and objectives of potential imperial conquests, these speeches are ex post facto justifications, sanctioned by hindsight. In Curzon’s case, the speech, from which the extracts above are quoted, was given in the House of Lords in 1909, four years after he returned from India. It was made to support the funding of a new London school of Oriental Studies. He had been recruited to the school’s founding committee and, not surprisingly, was painting its prospects in the best light he could.
Apart from Foucault’s grandiose hypothesis that knowledge always generates power, Said provides no support at all for his contention that “colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism” because he fails to cite evidence about the actual causal sequence that led to the annexation of any of the territories occupied by England or France in the nineteenth century. Where real historians have attempted this, they have come to quite different conclusions, with trade, investment, and military causes predominating. The decisions of the British to move into North Africa and the Middle East in the 1880s, for instance, were based on rivalry with the French, the need to guarantee the sea routes to India and China, and to protect British financial interests from nationalist challenges after Egypt became bankrupt. Philology did not come into it. Even Lenin has a more convincing explanation of imperialism than Said.
Said’s inept handling of historical material is evident throughout the book. He claims that, by the end of the seventeenth century, Britain and France dominated the eastern Mediterranean, whereas in reality the Levant was still controlled for the next hundred years by the Ottomans, and British and French merchants could only land with the permission of the Sultan. Said describes Egypt as a “colony” of Britain, whereas the legal status of British occupation of Egypt was never more than that of a protectorate. This is not merely a semantic difference because a real colony, like Australia or Algeria, was a place where large numbers of Europeans settled, which never happened in Egypt. Even on Islamic history, Said is unreliable. He claims that Muslim armies conquered Turkey before they took over North Africa. The facts are that the Arabs invaded North Africa in the seventh century, but what is now Turkey remained part of the Eastern Roman Empire and was a Christian country until conquered by the Seljuk Turks late in the eleventh century. The fact that these howlers have been preserved in the 1995 edition of the book suggests that Said lacks friends, admirers, or advisers with expertise in history who might have sent him a list of corrections.
Said justifies his decision to omit German Orientalists from his analysis by claiming that German scholars came to the field later than the British and French, and merely elaborated on the work originally done by their European rivals. This claim has generated considerable scorn among contemporary Oriental scholars. Bernard Lewis argues that “at no time before or after the imperial age did their [British and French] contribution, in range, depth, or standard, match the achievement of the great centers of Oriental studies in Germany and neighboring countries.” To omit German scholarship in this way is like trying to do a survey of the discipline of sociology without mentioning Weber, Simmel, or Tönnies. It is quite clear, however, where Said derived the incentive for this strategy. The Germans were prominent Orientalists, yet Germany never went on to become an imperial power in any of the Oriental countries of North Africa or the Middle East. For the Germans, knowledge did not generate power in the way that Foucault’s theory said it should. So, rather than admit this or try to explain it away, Said conveniently omits Germany from his survey.
The second part of Said’s thesis has just as little to recommend it. The notion that Western culture has needed an “Other” to define its own identity derives from the structuralist version of Freudian theory that became prominent in France in the 1960s. An individual’s self-concept, this thesis maintains, emerges only when he recognizes himself as separate from and different from others. Cultures need to go through an analogous process, it is claimed, and so must identify themselves through an alter ego. In other words, the need for an “Other” is built into human nature at both the individual and collective levels. This is a central concept of Said’s thesis but, unfortunately, it leads him into a direct contradiction with one of his core methodological dicta: his rejection of essentialism. In the afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, he complains that the book has been misread by hostile critics as an essentialist polemic against Western civilization. He says he would condemn any “attempt to force cultures and peoples into separate and distinct breeds or essences… . This false position hides historical change.” His own approach is “explicitly anti-essentialist.” It is difficult, though, to reconcile this assertion with the way he characterizes Western identity. He argues that, from its origins, the West’s self-concept was defined by its opposition to Asia.
Consider first the demarcation between Orient and the West. It already seems bold by the time of the Iliad. Two of the most profoundly influential qualities associated with the East appear in Aeschylus’s The Persians, the earliest Athenian play extant, and in The Bacchae of Euripides, the very last one extant… . The two aspects of the Orient that set it off from the West in this pair of plays will remain essential motifs of European imaginative geography. A line is drawn between two continents. Europe is powerful and articulate; Asia is defeated and distant.
These same motifs persist in Western culture, he claims, right down to the modern period. This is a tradition that accommodates perspectives as divergent as those of Aeschylus, Dante, Victor Hugo, and Karl Marx. However, in describing “the essential motifs” of the European geographic imagination that have persisted since ancient Greece, he is ascribing to the West a coherent self-identity that has produced a specific set of value judgments—“Europe is powerful and articulate: Asia is defeated and distant”—that have remained constant for the past 2500 years. This is, of course, nothing less than the use of the very notion of “essentialism” that he elsewhere condemns so vigorously. In short, it is his own work that is essentialist and ahistorical. He himself commits the very faults he says are so objectionable in the work of Orientalists.
The proposition that produces this contradiction is the claim that every culture needs to be defined by an Other. This is not an historical statement at all, but an epistemological assumption derived from structuralist theory. It is now such a standard refrain within cultural studies that it usually goes unquestioned. There is, however, very little to recommend it. Although they have long distinguished themselves from the barbarians of the world, Europeans do not primarily draw their identity from comparisons with other cultures. Instead, identity comes from their own heritage. Europeans identify themselves as joint heirs of classical Greece and Christianity, each tempered by the fluxes of medieval scholasticism, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modernism. In other words, Western identity is overwhelmingly defined by historical references to its earlier selves, rather than by geographical comparisons with others. To claim otherwise is to deny the central thrust of Western education for the past one thousand years.
The final component of Said’s thesis, the allegedly false essentialism of Orientalism, not only contradicts his own methodological assumptions, but is a curious argument in itself. Going back to the origins of a culture to examine its founding principles is hardly something to be condemned. This is especially so in the case of Islam where the founding book, the Koran, is taken much more literally by its adherents than the overt text of the Bible is taken by Christians today. In several countries, the Koran is both a religious and legal text. In others, like Egypt and Algeria, there are political movements prepared to resort to terrorism to have it made the basis of national law and authority. Moreover, one could not understand the most bitter division in the modern Islamic world, that between Shi’ites and Sunnis, without knowing its origins in the conflicts over succession after the death of Muhammed in 632, any more than one could properly understand events in contemporary Northern Ireland without some knowledge of the breach in the Christian world that occurred during the Reformation. One Muslim critic, Sadik Jalal al-’Azm, has argued that the kind of religious essentialism of which Said indicts Orientalism is actually necessary to understand the Muslim mind:
[I]t is true that in general the unseen is more immediate and real to the common citizens of Cairo and Damascus than it is to the present inhabitants of New York and Paris; it is true that religion “means everything” to the life of the Moroccan peasants in a way that must remain incomprehensible to present day American farmers.
Of course, Said would be right to complain were Western ideas about Islamic peoples confined solely to stereotypes derived from their founding texts and early history. But it is simply untrue that the whole body of Oriental scholarship has made this kind of mistake. Take Said’s claims about economic studies of Islamic countries. He condemns the work of Western observers
whose economic ideas never extended beyond asserting the Oriental’s fundamental incapacity for trade, commerce, and economic rationality. In the Islamic field those clichés held good for literally hundreds of years—until Maxime Rodinson’s important study Islam and Capitalism appeared in 1966.
Anyone, however, who takes the trouble to read the one book he favors, Islam and Capitalism, will find it actually tells a different story. Rodinson is a Marxist sociologist and his work, like most in its mold, is based on secondary sources. A large section of the book is a debate with, and critique of, those Western economists and their Muslim allies who do not, in fact, see the Arabs as having an inherent “incapacity for trade,” but instead regard these societies as capable of adopting capitalist commerce and industry. He discusses in some detail the work of six economic commentators who expressed views of this kind between the 1910s and the 1950s. Though Rodinson agrees there are many observers who share the assumptions identified by Said, and though his main aim is to see Islam adopt socialism, the evidence of his book is a clear refutation of Said’s sweeping generalization about Orientalist economics. In a later work, Europe and the Mystique of Islam (1987), Rodinson dismisses the kind of homogeneity that Said wants to impose on Oriental Studies, insisting that the field has always included “a multiplicity of issues coming under the jurisdiction of many general disciplines.”
Outside economic studies, Said’s claims about the essentialism of Oriental Studies are just as misleading. Bernard Lewis has produced his own survey of European attitudes towards Islam since the Middle Ages, Islam and the West (1994). He argues that Europe’s initial theological and ethnic prejudices had been largely overcome within serious scholarship by the end of the eighteenth century when the study of Islam was established as an academic subject worthy of attention and respect.
The Muslims were no longer seen purely in ethnic terms as hostile tribes, but as the carriers of a distinctive religion and civilization; their prophet was no longer a grotesque impostor or a Christian heretic but the founder of an independent and historically significant religious community.
In other words, rather than being necessarily ethnocentric and racist, Oriental Studies was one of the first fields within European scholarship to overcome such prejudices and to open the Western mind to the whole of humanity.
Although each of the three components of Said’s thesis is therefore untenable, this is unlikely in the short term to affect his status as an academic celebrity among students of literature and cultural studies in the West. He is not only one of those writers who helped create the current hegemony of identity-group politics and multiculturalism within the university system, but is also one of its chief beneficiaries. In accomplishing this, he has both endorsed the prevailing cult of the victim, upon which identity-group politics are based, and milked it himself to an indecent degree. “My own experiences of these matters,” he says in Orientalism, “are in part what made me write this book.”
The life of an Arab Palestinian in the West, particularly in America, is disheartening. There exists here an almost unanimous consensus that politically he does not exist, and when it is allowed that he does, it is either as a nuisance or as an Oriental. The web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed, and it is this web which every Palestinian has come to feel as his uniquely punishing destiny.
Coming from any grown man, such wallowing in victimhood would be bad enough, but from a tenured full professor at Columbia University in New York City— that is, from one of the most materially and occupationally privileged human beings on the planet, who enjoys the added indulgence of being permitted to make whatever criticism he fancies of the country that sustains him—it is simply embarrassing. It certainly calls into question the judgment of his more ardent admirers, especially Camille Paglia, who sees him as “an inspiring role model for a younger generation of critics seeking for their cultural identity.”
In the East, however, Said is regarded today in quite different terms. While he acknowledges that translations of his book have won him support among Islamic fundamentalists who see him documenting the violation of Islam and the Arabs by a predatory West, he is much less of an influence in other circles. He has had a highly publicized falling out with the Palestine Liberation Organization, but a better indicator of the regard in which he is widely held would be the notice taken of his views on his own turf, as a cultural critic. It must be something of a disappointment to him to see his analysis of the European arrogance and Western prejudices purportedly built into Orientalist cultural artifacts being completely ignored. For instance, at the time he wrote his book in the late 1970s, about half of the nineteenth-century Orientalist art that was put to auction in London and Paris was being bought by dealers for Arab clients living in the West. Today, collectors of North African, Near and Middle Eastern descent totally dominate the market for these paintings, with Western and Japanese buyers all but priced out. Islamic collectors have voted with their petrodollars. Palaces and mansions throughout North Africa and the Persian Gulf are now liberally adorned with those same portrayals of their culture by Delacroix, Ingres, Gérôme, Deutsch, and others that Said and his followers claim are so demeaning. How could their owners be so mistaken? The Moroccan curator Brahim Alaoui has explained that, despite Said, the romantic portrayal of the nineteenth-century Orient by European artists is now regarded as a valued part of Arab and Islamic heritage.
That image of the Orient which set the Occident dreaming in the nineteenth century returns something to those Orientals who also seek an image of their past. They find in this painting a world on its way to disappearing: this Orient that is highly colored, shimmering, this Orient of arabesques, of costumes, and the richness of forms is in the process of being eclipsed by a much more modern world. The image that was fixed by the Occident in the nineteenth century—the Orientals are now attempting to recover it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 5, on page 30
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