In Dialogue: Zafer Senocak – Abdelkader Benali
Muslims and Integration in Europe

In their correspondence, Zafer Senocak, one of the most prominent and versatile German-Turkish writers, and Abdelkader Benali, a popular and critically acclaimed Dutch-Moroccan novelist, discuss their migrant's experience in two different cultures and the integration problems Muslims are facing today

In their correspondence, Zafer Senocak, one of the most prominent and versatile German Turkish writers, and Abdelkader Benali, renowned Dutch-Moroccan novelist and author, discuss their experiences in two different cultures and the integration problems Muslims are facing today

Berlin, 30 March 2006

Dear Abdelkader,

Zafer Senocak (photo: private)
Zafer Senocak

​​I grew up in a family in which religion played a major role. During the fifties and sixties, my father was the publisher of one of the most influential Muslim magazines in Turkey. The magazine, which was simply called "Islam" was an intellectual platform for a conservative variety of Islam which tended towards theology, mysticism and philosophy. His kind of Islam was at the same time not directed towards politics: that approach to Islam had been largely banished from public life since the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

My mother, on the other hand, was a primary school teacher who came from a family of secularised civil servants. Her father was a judge – one of the first generation of lawyers in the Turkish republic. Her family viewed

Islam as something for the lower classes, symbolised by the headscarf of the peasant women and domestic servants. For them, Islam was the main reason for the country's backwardness. For centuries, hadn't Hodjas prevented progress with their dubious legal judgements? They had even prohibited the introduction of the printing press, for fear that such a machine might be used to duplicate the Holy Koran.

On the other side, Atatürk had liberated women from their social imprisonment, set the truths of science and research above those of religion and initiated a process of Enlightenment. In such an environment, my father was an outsider with his views and religious convictions. But his position as an outsider always fascinated me. He was an artistic man, and much more open than the strict Kemalists when it came to matters of art and social conventions.

What was he really fighting for? For his role as a man, for his faith, for his dignity, for democracy and human rights? At least in my case, the so-called "clash of civilisations" was fought out within my own family.

I always regard tension as something from which creative energy can emerge, and so I found myself quite happy in the role of an observer of these different worlds and values, even though I was repeatedly made aware that a dialogue on matters of faith is only possible in a very limited way.

All the same, those committed to the enlightenment, who believe in the responsibility of the individual, and those who are committed to faith, who see themselves as God's creatures, are dependent on each other. The former reminds people of their creative potential, the latter of their limitations. One without the other leads to slavery.

The Turkey of the sixties no longer exists. The headscarf is no longer a symbol of the lower class; it's now a symbol of the women who want to study but are prohibited from doing so because they wear it. Even the prime minister's wife wears one. For that reason she is not permitted to attend official receptions of the Turkish state. It's a paradox that the regime which wanted to liberate women from their isolation now prevents them from appearing in public. Muslim women are justified in seeing this as discrimination.

But what kind of religion is it which tells you what clothes you should wear? What has God to do with sex? Why does the man have to be protected from the attractions of women?

Wouldn't life be more beautiful if we (we men?) were allowed to observe these attractions in all their splendour? What is the advantage for women of these restrictions? For a long time, people thought the issue of religion had been dealt with – at least ever since the time of sexual liberation. But sexual liberation never arrived in Muslim societies, mainly because it's a very Western-Christian phenomenon.

In Muslim culture, sex doesn't need to be liberated from its connection with smuttiness – it's simply there: a natural phenomenon. But it has to be regulated, just like everything else has to be regulated. And it quickly becomes an issue of honour, always seen from the male perspective. It is scarcely possible to imagine a greater tendency towards structure and discipline than in Muslim society. In fact, in that way, it's very German, even though since Hitler the need for structure and discipline in Germany is not celebrated quite so excessively.

I saw an extract from a film recently. In it, the Netherlands presents itself to potential immigrants. There was a woman in the film, topless. At least that is honest. That is more or less how people in Muslim countries imagine the West: as a powerful machine for business and sex. But is that the way the West really wants to be seen? Can one, should one separate the human body from sexual desire, and does that bring about a more liberated relationship with oneself?

In Germany, there is a lively debate on the issues of the low birth rate and the decline of the family and plenty of discussion about values. It was only ten years ago when people in Germany were talking about the Fun Society. Everyone was supposed to be partying. It shows how quickly times change. Nowadays time is divided into tiny splinters. Perhaps that is one cause of the general feeling that people do not know where they are going or what they should do.

The late pope worked his way to pop star status with slogans like "no contraception" and "no sex before marriage." That too is the West. Sometimes I have the feeling that people here envy Muslims for their large "intact" families and for their general sense of community. This furtive envy is scarcely a satisfactory precondition for promoting individualism.

Does the West want to make its open society more attractive for Muslim immigrants, does it demand from them more respect and loyalty? The thought that the entire immigration process has an erotic element seems convincing to me. The two sides can only unite so long as there is a mutual attraction between them.


Zafer Şenocak is one of the most prominent and versatile German Turkish writer today. A prize-winning poet, translator, editor, political and philosophical essayist, and fiction writer, Şenocak is the most challenging voice of the Turkish population in Germany. His stylish and provocative essays explore taboo and repressed aspects of relations between Occident and Orient, Europe and Islam. His fiction has won him international acclaim.

Amsterdam, 4 April 2006

Dear Zafer,

Abdelkader Benali
Abdelkader Benali

​​I am astonished by how globalised we have become during the last ten years, due to the Internet, cheap plane tickets and the mutual attraction between cultures. We can see this globalisation from events like 9/11 and the war in Iraq and now I, Abdelkader Benali, who was born in the poor north of Morocco of semi-illiterate parents and whose father moved to Europe in the sixties and worked as a Gastarbeiter before establishing himself as a butcher in Rotterdam, am writing in proper English to a German-Turkish author, discussing interesting topics like the headscarf, secularism vs. religion and the best way to avoid misinterpretation.

We have met in Maastricht, the city where the famous treatise was signed that opened the way to a unified monetary Europe. At that time this idea of Europe (as de Gaulle would have said) was seen by many hard-toiling people as a cheat. Nothing good would come of it.

Since then a lot of complaints have been raised about the big world we are living in; our leaders have been scorned and it serves them right; but it looks as if even the staunchest opponent of this Europe has turned mild or in the least has tuned down his earlier criticism.

Nowadays the number one topic is Islam in Europe and the question if the laws, morals and social standards of Muslims are compatible with the prevailing secular society. I sense confusion in this discussion and – after what happened in Amsterdam with Theo van Gogh and the rise of a right wing government that has launched a political program of Muslim containment – fear. Among the common people there's the idea that nothing good can come out of Muslims.

Their behaviour is backward; and as arguments to justify their view they point to the headscarf that covers the head but suppresses the woman, or the way Muslims slaughter their lambs on the Feast of Sacrifice, or their anti-Western rhetoric when it comes to issues like globalisation and separation of State and Church.

The first time I saw Muslim immigrants represented as a group was in a German movie I watched as a child. The story dealt with a group of Turkish immigrants who had come in a van from Anatolia to work as Gastarbeiter in Germany. They sleep in the van, pray and barely talk to each other. In Berlin, City of Sin, they end up in a sex show. They see a couple copulate naked on the stage. People have paid to see this and they applaud when the man has ejaculated. People never applaud for a woman reaching her orgasm. My parents would never allow me to watch that very explicit part of the movie, but somehow I saw it. I never forgot it. Muslim immigrants abhor cheap sex.

And suddenly I am looked on as an author with a Muslim background who can tell society and its well-wishers how to deal with this homogeneous part of the population. When people ask me what I think, I always know how to tease them. I think a writer should tease. Especially now with so much hullabaloo going on.

"How are we going to solve the Muslim problem," people ask me.

"I don't see a problem," I respond.

"What do you mean, you don't see a problem?"

"What do you mean by problem?"

"Well, don't you see that the second generation of Moroccans looks down on Western culture, they are anti-Semitic to the core, they import their woman from their country of origin, try to emulate the traditional life of their parents and they still eat with their hands."

"What is the problem with eating with your hands?"

"You know what I mean." I just have to smile before I answer.

"Did you read this inquiry that has just come out in the Netherlands?" I respond. "Forum, an institute that follows trends in multicultural society has asked young Muslims about their religious behaviour, their points of view on life issues and so on. And what has come out of it, among the facts, is that scarcely any of them attends mosque. They care more about the right model of Prada's than the right position for praying in the direction of Mecca. They are young and like all the young they are extreme. So they feel extreme emotions, dress extreme and talk extreme. Look at the generation of '68 that put flowers in their hair and listened to very strange music and called for world revolution. How many of them really pursued their goals?"

The discussion has not ended yet. Intelligent people who have found a Moroccan-Dutch writer who is open to discussing everything from Islam in the Valley of the Palms in Southern Morocco to Mahler's Fifth can be very, very persistent.

"But calling for love and peace is different from calling for jihad and death to the infidel. This generation has no respect whatsoever."

"Maybe they resemble the general attitude of our times. To have no respect for authority, to be critical of Bush, Blair, to say it like it is, to raise issues concerning discrimination and social injustice and to ask again what it means to be religious in secular times – that's not only confined to young Muslims. Everybody talks about such things, the game is open."

"So you say they are not different?"

"I call a spade a spade and to me all the spades look alike."

"Even when they wear a headscarf?"

"You know: I see girls with headscarves who wear make-up and smoke cigarettes. That looks like a contradiction but one day I saw a Turkish girl with a headscarf (Turkish girls wear their headscarves totally differently from Moroccan girls) holding a dog on a leash. That is a contradiction in terms at its most sublime extreme."

"So you don't see the threat?"

"I see a lot of dogs on a leash."

"Some of these dogs can bite."

"Some of these dogs are totally harmless."

"Some headscarves want more headscarves and are controlled by a man with a beard."

"Some headscarves enjoy great sex, even if they don't talk about it, even if they keep it secret to society. Do we need a ScarfStock, like the generation of the sixties needed a Woodstock to confirm its total liberation from everything, so that it could say it had solved the existential riddle that haunted society after the Second World War?"

"So you don't see the threat?"

"I am a realist. I think we should have strong security services to undermine attacks on our civil society. But I think personal freedom is more under attack now than the so-called civil society is."

"I wish you were right."

"And I wish arguments could turn even the most fearsomely intelligent person into somebody who trusts the future and is willing to fight for it."

"So you want to bring down the threat?!"


"You can't win."

"Why not?"

"Because the threat doesn't play games."

"We will see about that."


Abdelkader Benali was born in Ighazzazen, Morocco in 1975 and moved to Rotterdam when he was four years old to join his father who was working there. He spoke Berber but soon started to write successfully in Dutch, winning several literary competitions. Acclaim for Benali's work followed rapidly, with translations of the novel, Wedding by the sea, appearing in many countries including England, the US, France and Germany.

Berlin, 11 April 2006

Dear Abdelkader,

You write about the globalised world in which we live. This world is a real challenge especially for us writers, since we need a certain slowness in order to work. After all, writing is nothing if it is not slowing down the flow of speech so that we can win something meaningful from it.

But the globalised world also opens up new fields of activity and spaces for communication. Is it merely chance, for example, that we are now communicating in a medium which specifically belongs to the globalised world?

When people talk about the failure of multicultural societies they are, in my view, only expressing their failure in the face of the challenges of the globalised world. And the key element in this failure is "fear" – fear of the loss of the well-worn paths one has taken, of the ways of expression one has used, of the currencies with which one is used to paying. Every moment, the known can turn into the unknown, into something new. These permanent transformations are not seen as something exciting and enriching, but as a threat – especially since they are often linked with the loss of economic and political power.

When the "guest workers" were first brought to Europe a half-century ago, nobody thought of the danger of Islam. Nowadays, people write books in which they prophecy a world controlled by Muslims. Muslim fascism threatens the "free" West, they write. But such scenarios only distract attention from the real problems.

I recently saw a statistic which showed that in recent years it has become very difficult for young people of Turkish origin to get a vocational training place. The number of those who have such places has gone down by almost a third, while the number of Germans has at least remained the same, and in some parts of the country even improved. What will happen to those young men and women? What kind of future do they have? Is it possible to integrate people into society if they do not even have the basic necessities for living?

Our society is an assembly line for outcasts. Many of these young people have nothing to do with religion. It's all the same to them whether the muezzin calls them to prayer or the church bells ring. But in public they are the Muslims: impossible to integrate, potential terrorists, misogynist, homophobic etc.

It's true: we are seeing a brutalisation of behaviour, and to a certain extent there is also a radicalisation of opinion. Many of the young men grow up in a very traditional environment whose values and norms readily find themselves in conflict with those of a free, pluralistic society. But to see this social phenomenon in theological terms doesn't bring us a step further.

There are some 120,000 Iranians living in Germany and most of them ascribe to the Muslim faith. But we never hear about them when people are talking about the "dangers" of Islam. That's because most of them come from the middle class, some of them even from the upper class. The Turks, on the other hand, were let into the country in their hundreds of thousands in the sixties to take up the dirty work in the coal mines and underground tunnels, and they have turned into a millions-strong lower class with small chances of upward social mobility.

The jobs they used to do simply do not exist any more and the people who did them are simply no longer needed. Most of them are poorly trained, if at all, and their children are failures at school. Anyone who manages to crawl out of this hole – and quite a few do – has truly accomplished something. That's the real scandal we should be talking about. The intellectual discussion about Islam is a pointless debate. It doesn't reach the people it's talking about. It's a matter for the cultural pages of the newspapers.

Let's return to the phenomenon of fear. I've got into the habit of sometimes changing my point of view when I write about this phenomenon. I stop being the one of whom others are afraid, and I become someone who is afraid of me.

I imagine I'm one of those Germans who have been living in the same part of Berlin for decades. I work for a small company which is threatened with closure. I'm coming up to fifty, and the chances of finding another job are poor. And now they want to build a mosque in my part of town. People who look foreign, who always go around in groups, will gather there and say their prayers.

I've found out from the media that they don't just say their prayers there. And anyway, their foreign looks, their strange clothes, their broken German all irritate me. I want to live in Germany with people like me. It's my country after all. What are these foreigners doing here anyway? My neighbour told me that most of them live off social welfare at our expense. He also says that we're dying out and that these "wogs" will inherit everything that we have built up with so much effort over the years. They have children like rabbits.

No, when I'm taking part in a panel discussion or at the readings I give, I don't hear such arguments. Then I hear that the Turks don't want to integrate. And that there are simply too many of them here.


Amsterdam, 26 April 2006

Dear Zafer,

The present discourse about multiculturalism, globalisation and reaching out to each other to answer the challenges of globalism is taking on more and more of the traits of an unpleasant drama. We love to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly that are stored up in humankind, but when in the meanwhile nations, regimes, democratically chosen leaders and not so democratically chosen leaders are preparing for war, are unwilling to give up their plans to enrich uranium, or continue to bombard innocent countries, everything positive that could be said begins to sound a little bit hollow.

Poetry changes nothing, and I also would add, nor do novels and short stories and the occasional essay. I totally agree with you that writers should be hesitant where society becomes hasty and demands immediate solutions to erstwhile neglected problems. I love to write slowly and I love to be patient although I also think that when urgency prompts you to speak out loud, to put emphasis on the Zeitgeist, and you see things clearly where others just observe a blurred picture, you should do so.

But nowadays I have grown weary. I think it is a mistake to ask writers, especially us, endowed with this incredible experience of two cultures, to lay down the fundaments of the future. The future is unknowable. Of course: I believe in the happy couple, I believe in making plans and I believe in the groundwork of common sense that will bring people together and unite them in their struggle against social injustice.

But like in every good marriage unforeseeable things can happen along the way. The husband can fall in love with his mistress and the whole affair tumbles until it resembles the agonising Scenes of a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman.

But let me give you a brief outline of the mistakes made by our present governments: the mistake of not reaching out to the underclasses to improve their backward situation but instead attributing their social problems to religion. This is a mistake for which the French are paying, as we have seen in the banlieus.

Another prize is that Europe is still very much a confederation of states, in other words: every country is deeply nationalistic. The history of Europe has always been one of emphasising the differences between the states, so France is different from Germany and for that reason we can go to war, England is different from the Netherlands and for that reason we want to stay out of war.

Europe was always basing its identity on the fact that it was different from the other. The deaths of the First and Second World War were of soldiers who were defending this absurd but workable notion of difference. That is also the reason why the idea of Europe does not appeal to people nowadays. There is nothing to fight for, because Europe was created on an idea of peace and that idea has an economic foundation of mutual self-interest. It's a fine balance and still maintained.

You can understand why Europe has many problems accepting the immigrant as his equal: because it means contradicting this prevailing idea of maintaining the difference that ruled Europe for hundreds of years. The immigrant should, in order not to break the nationalistic dream, stay different. The moment the immigrant starts asking for equality, it is given on the basis of the ideals of the French Revolution, but that sits uncomfortably with the idea of nationalism.

The "scum" of the earth found refuge in the twentieth century in socialism. Its universalism and redemption of the damned appealed and worked, but socialism was dealt a blow with the fall of the Wall. Socialism was death and the parties directed their attention to the new middle class that came out of the old lower class. But nowadays we have a new form of lower class: all those people of different origins that neither fit in to the idea of Europe nor find their way in the socialism of the third way. They are the new orphans.

To be an orphan is to be independent out of necessity. You cannot not be independent, because nobody is taking care of you. This idea, this challenge, creates, as you said, great individuals, but it leaves the group disoriented. The new form of Islam appeals to a lot of these orphans. I understand why. They don't want to go through a scenario out of Scenes of a Marriage – they want an identity (although it may be cheap) and a stability that can protect the orphan that is within them. It says: you can be saved too, and resounds with all the clichés of the so-called dynamic religion. Whether you abhor it or have sympathy for it: it creates a new reality and it is up to the global society to deal with it.

Let me come back to the idea of globalisation; I agree with you: failure to deal with globalism leads to fear and reactions that have their root in provincial nationalism. Europe is caught in its desire to be a Jack-of-All-Trades; it does this perfectly well but it leaves its citizens without a soul. I will elaborate deeper on this next time.

Kind regards,

Abdelkader Benali

Berlin, 8 May 2006

Dear Abdelkader,

You write that Europe's core problem is the way it relates to the Other, and that culture, as it is developed in nation states and nurtured to underpin an identity, is seen as the realm of the immigration police. In reality, I believe that without overcoming this exclusivist and essentially deeply racist way of thinking, there will be no possibility of achieving a united Europe.

At the most we will have a community of independent states which have got together over common economic and strategic interests. Perhaps that in itself is a success, when one thinks of the history of Europe, branded by wars and mutual slaughter. The continent of civil wars has been fairly successful in ensuring peace over the last sixty years. But this peace will be under threat as long as people do not realise that migration into Europe is creating new tensions.

It's precisely because the tensions between the states have diminished that Europe's aggressive potential is now looking for a new and at the same time familiar battlefield: the relationship to people of other religions and other skin colours.

I see Islamism as merely an "oriental" version of European nationalism. The xenophobic element, the culturalism, the entrapment of people in their group, their clan, their nation and their culture are thereby the elements they have in common.

Islamism in this sense is not an archaic religious conviction, but a thoroughly modern tendency. Some commentators speak of a third totalitarian ideology after fascism and communism against which the free world must defend itself. But I agree with you: this struggle, which is often interpreted as a cultural phenomenon, is in the first instance a dispute over material resources, over opportunities for the future, social status and justice. That last term is a term which is often used, but remains foreign to the history of humankind.

I have increasingly the feeling that the escape into culturalism – by which culture is seen as the framework which explains all problems – is strengthened by this development, so that the solution of social problems is pushed back ever further into the future.

What chances does the child of a migrant family have nowadays in European society if it ends up without any qualification from school? And in Germany it's not just a few children who are in this position. Of course, society isn't to blame for everything. There's also plenty of lethargy and lack of interest among the migrants themselves.

But the "orphans," as you fittingly call them, are addressed far too infrequently. In recent decades, money has been cut from training and free-time provision, in order to save money. But this is a false economy which will prove expensive for society: you can see that already, without having to be a prophet.

It's true: we writers are not social workers. We are also not prophets. But we still have some kind of connection to these roles. We describe human conditions and feelings which often remain hidden in the so-called public discourse. The way the "orphans" look for self-sufficiency has a strong aesthetic dimension – there can be little doubt about that. This aesthetic dimension is served today, in my view, by the affirmative ideology of Islamism.

The poses Islamists adopt, the video messages of suicide bombers, the intensive use of the internet, the media presence of the terror princes – as if they were pop stars – these are all a kind of replacement for art, a kind of bad poetry. To confront that with a demanding and innovative aesthetic programme is a real challenge.

It's not a matter of changing the world with books; it is rather a matter of being part of the world so that one can see it from a new perspective. That can partly be achieved by finding a language for the sense of loss which many feel, without ties to a state, a country or a tradition. There are other options beyond the leisure industry and the Al Qaeda training camp.

I'm a few years older than you. And this sense you write about that you've had enough of being someone guarding the bridges between the cultures is one I recognise all too well. The fact that we have to live with this role that has been ascribed to us gives us the chance of making something of it. Aren't you grateful for the many wonderful stories to which we have access because we've grown up in more than one culture? I see this by now as an aesthetic challenge, just as I see Islam as an aesthetic challenge. There's no other way of moving towards self-sufficiency.

With very best wishes,


Amsterdam, 15 May 2006

Dear Zafer,

Our bodies don't belong to us any more. They are being invaded, torn up, eaten, occupied, bombarded, discussed, enlightened, cut up and scrutinized by new ideas, influences, traditions, songs, medleys, movies, political circumstances and radical thought. We try to protect our body, keeping it a bridge between the rational and subconscious, by wearing beautiful clothes, by swimming, by building houses that surround us and our shallow ideas, we defend this our mortal flesh against the arrows that besiege it by hiding away, by not responding to the sharp questions of modernity.

The East and the West, they both claim our body, they say: show it to world, or blow it up, or make it strong, or let it be a pious thing, cover your jewellery! And so the body becomes the new battlefield of the so-called struggle for dominion.

The only way for the thinking person to claim sovereignty over their body is by thinking, reflecting, writing and using their anger to mould a new form of resistance, or existence, in the great tradition of Abu Nawas, Voltaire, James Joyce, Albert Camus, Edward Said and his brothers and sisters.

Right now we are doing this, or trying to do this. The metaphor of Sisyphus ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain comes to mind. I live with this image that is very dear to me, and it comes to mind every time I engage in a discussion about Islam, the plight of feminism, terrorism, social injustice – the discussions seem to never change, the topics are well known, not many people are willing to let their stern point of view alter in the face of the changing realities and I see myself as Sisyphus going up that mountain again, using this stone as a weapon – or style – to make myself understood and clear.

The body of Sisyphus is also vulnerable so one day death will come and take him away and the stone will stay behind, ready for a young new Sisyphus to push it up the mountain.

The challenge for writers is to define the sharpness of that stone and the immediacy of the moment. I travel, use my eyes and bring back my experiences. Just like you, I feel connected to my roots and I look with excitement into the future.

This may be bleak, but let us learn to love bleakness!

One thing is for sure: writers and thinkers can change attitudes by opening windows on a new world. But there are many ugly truths to be told, and the best way to tell them is gently and with patience.

Sisyphus has to be patient. And we have to listen better and be aware of the fact that sometimes the highest form of responsibility is to not be responsible at all. We have to be blunt, a little bit foolish, like Erasmus in his masterwork, In Praise of Folly, to bring into light this absurd and, for that reason, unfair situation that we human beings live in.

We have to say no to oppression in all forms, everywhere, only via that way we truly can become universalists.

All too often do the so-called "great thinkers" of our times shun away from making public their critique of religion and state institutions. All too often the so-called objective critics of modern society and its enemies turn a blind eye. But this has its consequences: more and more people understand that it is impossible to condemn injustice of a culture that one does not belong to and at the same time say nothing of the injustice that is thriving in one's own community. It's not fair. Sisyphus cannot play that game.

This correspondence is a beginning, and it should not stop here. In a way I changed during this dialogue. I started rethinking some of my positions and I had to give up some of my former arguments.

Dialogue is the only way to a kind of agreement. It's the only weapon in the long-term fight against fanaticism.

The problem of our times is not that there is a conflict going on between equals. The world is a place that feeds on inequality. The problem is that every conflict is an unequal affair. It's always the stronger against the weaker, always the richer against the poorer, the more villainous against the less evil.

The reason that we have to reasonable is because it's the only way we can analyse this disturbing state of inequality and its distorting images. Maybe that is the reason why I love the myth of Sisyphus so much: the weak man pushes the heavy stone. The stone will always defy the man's intent – but it lacks the one thing that the man has: reason.

Kind regards,

Abdelkader Benali

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