“Egypt is my mother, the womb of all my thoughts,” claims the narrator of Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You, a novel that explores the lives of Egypt’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth century.
Author Tobie Nathan is himself a Jewish Egyptian, descended from a line of rabbis that includes a chief rabbi of Egypt in the late nineteenth century. Expelled from Cairo in 1957, Nathan’s family eventually settled in France, where Nathan grew up to become a pioneering ethno-psychiatrist, working primarily with migrants. A prominent public intellectual in France, he is the author of a dozen novels and numerous nonfiction studies, including Wandering Souls (trans. Stephen Muecke, Polity 2019), an account of his government-sponsored work with radicalized Muslim youth.
A Land Like You, published to wide acclaim as Ce pays qui te ressemble in France in 2015, has recently been translated into English by Joyce Zonana and published by Seagull Books. Among the plethora of Egyptian Jewish novels and memoirs, it is the first to focus, not on Egypt’s French-speaking elite or bourgeois Jews living in Cairo and Alexandria’s elegant downtowns, but on Cairo’s poorest, indigenous Jews living in Haret al-Yahud, the city’s ancient Jewish quarter. These Jews live side by side with Muslim Arabs, sharing the same food, clothing, language, customs, and beliefs. As one of the characters asserts, “Our tales fill their Qur’an, their tongue fills our mouths. Why are they not us? Why are we not them?”
In the passage excerpted below, we learn how the infant Zohar—the novel’s narrator—born in Haret al-Yahud in 1925, comes to be nursed by a Muslim Arab woman, beside his “milk-sister,” Masreya, whose name means “the Egyptian woman.” And we are given a hint of how this accident of fate will lead to the destinies of the two, Zohar and the “Egyptian woman,” being inextricably entwined. The novel follows the lives of Zohar and Masreya, who mingle with actual historical figures—Anwar Sadat, King Farouk, and Gamel Abdel Nasser among others—as Egypt is transformed in the years leading up to the Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952.
Deeply influenced by I.B. Singer, whom he has called the “prince of all writers,” Nathan here brings us Egypt’s Jews in all their rich diversity, believing in demons and invoking spells and spirits, living side by side with Muslims as a “man might live beside his innards.” In presenting us with this rich portrait of a society before it comes to be riven by what Ella Shohat has termed the “lethal binarisms” of the competing essentialist ideologies of Zionism and Arab nationalism, Nathan offers us a new way of imagining the future for Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.
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Excerpt from Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You
Aunt Tofa’ha had a smile on her lips when she told the dancer, Hassan’s Cairo wife: “She’s the one, Oum Jinane, she’s the one we want to meet! Her reputation has reached us in the Mouski. Is it true what we’ve heard? Since she gave birth to her daughter, her breasts give so much milk that you can fill three big jars every day?”
“Words of light flow from your lips, my sister! Yes, it’s true! Her daughter is barely two days old and already her face is round as a watermelon. In the morning, Oum Jinane’s blouse is soaked, the sheets on which she’s slept are soaked and the mattress is also wet. You’d think her bed had been watered in the middle of the night. And you can taste it, it’s milk, pure milk.”
The woman led them through the back room of the den, along dark corridors, up to the first floor, to Jinane’s room. A ray of sunlight filtering through a gap in the curtains traced a line of fire on the wall, as if it were split. They were both on the bed. The little one was greedily sucking to the rhythm of a refrain her mother was softly singing, “I’m the Egyptian, natural child of torrents and desert, born from the belly of the cow, my name is Masreya . . . O Masreya . . .”
Moved by the sight, the three women bowed to the ground. Naji, the simple-minded one, was emitting little cries of excitement and was given a tap behind his ear. Then Tofa’ha greeted Jinane. Ancient images came to mind. She thanked God for having brought her here and thanked Him again. She knelt and kissed the mother’s hands. To avoid the evil eye, Khadouja showered the infant with deprecating words, “Look how ugly she is. With that rumpled face, you’d think she was an old witch.” And she tapped one hand on the other and then the other way around, “Ay ya yay. How ugly she is, this Egyptian girl!” she repeated. And Jinane, filled with joy, thanked the women and thanked God at the same time—though it wasn’t clear it was the same god.
Khadouja then spoke up, explained to Oum Jinane that over there, in the Mouski, in the Alley of the Jews, a boy had been born to a couple from the jewel family, the Gohars. Over there, they called them “Zohar.” His face was so beautiful that when women looked at him, tears came to their eyes. Sometimes beauty has more power than strength does. When they drew near him, a fragrance arose, like incense. What she wanted to ask her was: Should they let this child die because its mother, poor thing, didn’t have a drop of milk? Of course, they’d tried to feed him cow’s milk, and sheep’s milk, but he’d refused all nourishment. They’d sought wet-nurses
from the neighborhood, from the Jews in Haret al-Yahud, but he had turned away, spitting. Ever since he was born, he’d absorbed nothing—nothing at all. And so, here’s what they thought: he was probably waiting for the milk of happy Jinane. And Khadouja cited a verse from the Qur’an that described Moses—for whom, as everyone knows, the pharaoh’s daughter anxiously sought a wet-nurse—and said, “Nurse him! Don’t be afraid. Don’t be sad.” And added, “Trust me, he’ll come back to you!”
Tofa’ha wondered what that last sentence meant: “He’ll come back to you.” Did it mean he would be Jinane’s child and one day join her? Or perhaps he would marry an Arab, a Muslim? She shook her head in denial.
Masreya had fallen asleep at her mother’s breast, her mouth half open. Khadouja continued her assault, unremitting. She mused out loud: “Once, you gave life. But you couldn’t do otherwise. In your belly, the child, drawn by the light and sounds of the world, wanted to emerge. All you did was to go along with its will, all you did was to help it with all your strength. This time, it’s through your decision, your choice, that you’ll give life to an infant who, without you, will go back among the dead. Will you refuse to give life by an act of your own will?”
At these words, Jinane accepted. She thought God would be grateful, and that, in exchange for her milk, He would grant a long, beautiful life to Masreya, her daughter, the little Egyptian girl cradled in her arms. Yes, she replied to Khadouja, she would go with her daughter to spend a few weeks in the Alley of the Jews, among the jewel family, so that their child would consent to join the living.
Tofa’ha clapped her hands exclaiming, “Glory be to God!”—a God whom she called “Allah” in Arabic, as did all the ghetto Jews. And Khadouja placed her hands on Jinane’s head and brought them back to her lips, repeating, “In the name of God, in the name of God.” And the women laughed and cried at the same time, and the idiot Naji clapped his hands.
After packing some things (it had to be done quickly), the women set off in a cart drawn by a big sorrel horse with a golden mane. Naji sat beside the coachman. Jinane insisted on a detour to the mosque of Sayeda al-Zaynab. What was the point of doing a good deed if God and his angels were not informed? It took so long that, by the time the carriage arrived in front of Uncle Elie’s grocery, the sun was starting to go down in the sky.
“All day long, he hasn’t stopped crying for a minute,” old Massouda, Uncle Elie’s wife, complained. “What do you expect? He’s hungry. And his mother’s withdrawn from the world. It’s sad to see a mother weeping because she can’t feed her starving child.”
They led Jinane of the beautiful breasts to a large wicker sofa. In one arm, she held Masreya, child of the Nile, who’d fallen asleep; Esther’s aunts placed the boy, who still didn’t have a name, in her other. He seized the breast, and sucked for a whole hour, without stopping. Motty, his father, standing, leaning on his cane, also couldn’t stop chanting in Hebrew a verse from the Song of Songs: “Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor; thy
belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.”
The news of the miracle spread like wildfire. A group formed in front of the grocery door, and Aunt Maleka went out to serve dates, exclaiming, “It’s a miracle, a great miracle.” Never had any neighborhood in Cairo been so excited by a baby’s nursing.
Until bedtime, the child nursed three more times at the breast of abundance. He took hold of one nipple, little Masreya another, and the two children’s hands sometimes touched. You would have thought they were two lovers entering Paradise as they held each other’s hands. The night was far advanced when they laid him, sated, in his mother Esther’s arms.
Jinane was settled in the family’s biggest house, the one that belonged to Aunt Maleka and her husband Yakoub, whom everyone called Poupy. She felt safe in the ghetto. She knew that no one would come looking for her in this realm of the excluded. She told herself that here her daughter ran no danger: unknown to her family, the excitable peasants of the Delta; protected from the evil eye of the women on Ma’ruf Street; and from the predictable fury of Abdine Street and its master, Abdel Wahab. The Jewish women of the hara, their hearts swelling with gratitude, treated her like a princess. Every day, they served her dishes whose secrets they alone knew: first wheat porridge with milk, the one set aside for those who’ve just given birth; then zucchini stuffed with meat, which they called “Italian”; a veal ragout she’d never tasted that they called “sefrito”; rice and lentils with dill; and, of course, multiple helpings of ful, dried favas, the delicious food of the Egyptian people. Between meals, they plied her with little cakes—hazelnut mille-feuilles dripping with honey; morsels of pastry stuffed with puréed dates; white-sugar cookies, round like the full moon, cleft like women’s asses.
They never left her alone, not for an instant, responsive to each of her desires, talking with her about her parents, her childhood. And they pitied her. “O God! How could you give birth alone, far from your mother, far from your aunts, far from the land of your birth?” said one as she raised her hands skyward. “Poor thing,” another said. “Nothing can replace her family, but we can help her forget.” And Masreya, the little Egyptian girl, was passed from hand to hand by the aunts, who washed and massaged and cradled her as if she were their own child, with the same privileges as Esther’s son.
Tofa’ha, the youngest aunt, who’d developed a real affection for Jinane, asked Rav Mourad to make an amulet for the newborns, to repel Lilith, the female angel of death. She knew he was obstinate, their rabbi, but honest at heart, and above all learned. Yet when he tried to get out of it by saying, “Listen, we can’t make her a Jewish amulet—she’s Muslim!” the dismayed women cried, “And why not?” in one voice. “So—do the demons, the sorcerers and the germs check someone’s faith before attacking them?”
Maleka, the wisest, but certainly not the least offensive, declared, sententiously, “To pray, each group is different, but to protect ourselves from death, we’re all the same!”
And Tofa’ha appealed to him, “So, do you want the death of Jinane’s child, even though she’s saved the life of ours?” Of course Mourad ended up relenting, but silently cursed this Zohar family that feared neither God nor rabbis.
In the night’s silence, despite his ill-will, he set to work. In his most beautiful handwriting, he copied, on a large, more or less rectangular parchment, the prayer he found in a book of practical Kabbalah he’d inherited from his grandfather: “He will not allow your leg to stray, the God of our fathers. As it is written, He neither sleeps nor dreams, the Guardian of Israel.” Then in the center of the sheet he drew a black hand with outspread fingers; to the right a fish and to the left an eye, a little like the eye of Horus in the engravings in books about ancient Egypt. And he let his imagination go. “O, you evil eyes! Eye that looks to the right, eye that looks to the left! O you evil eyes! Baleful eye, piercing eye, eye that absorbs life, eye that brings death! O you evil eyes! Eye of the divorced woman, eye of the deceived husband; eye of the blind, eye of the lame.” There followed a long litany of toxic eyes, envious eyes—ending with the last, the most powerful: the eye that remembers the eye. Mourad addressed all these eyes and warned them: “O, you evil eyes, the eye of God sees you and transfixes you. He prevents you from acting against these two infants, whom he protects with His powerful hand. You will be able to do nothing, neither during the day nor during the night, neither during wakefulness nor during sleep, neither in dreams nor in madness. You will be able to do nothing against them, neither here nor elsewhere, neither in Lower Egypt nor in Upper Egypt, neither in this world nor the next.” He called on the hundreds of angels he knew by name; he called on legions of demons whose names he distributed all around the parchment. At the very top, he inscribed the name of the most powerful, Solomon, lord of spirits and animals. At the very bottom, he inscribed the seventeen names of Lilith the destroyer, Shatrina, Abito, Kali and all the others. And in a corner, encircled by beautiful arabesques, he recounted the history of the prophet Elijah who recognized Lilith and transfixed her with his words. He consecrated two nights and a day to the creation of his amulet. Then, he brought it to Maleka’s house.
When he welcomed him, Poupy, the husband, was startled by his shining eyes.
“What’s happened to you, O my rav? Your eyes are wider than the doors of heaven. Have you encountered an angel, perhaps?”
Mourad went straight to Jinane’s room. Sitting like a sultana on her wicker sofa, she was nursing the two children. Tofa’ha, who was massaging her feet, rose instantly.
“I hope you’re not coming to tell us you couldn’t make the amulet,” she said to him, looking distressed.
“Woman of little faith,” Mourad replied. “Here it is!”
He unrolled the parchment. And she examined it, dumbfounded. Tofa’ha did not know how to read Hebrew—and even if she had, it would not have been of much use, since Mourad had drafted the amulet in Aramaic. But it was beautiful, this amulet, a sort of complex tableau, with the look of a labyrinth, its three designs encircled by dancing words and lost letters.
“Maleka!” she called, “Maleka! Come quick to see the shield Mourad has crafted.”
“But there is one condition,” Mourad announced.
“What? A condition? What kind of condition?” Tofa’ha challenged, hands on hips.
“One condition, that’s all! The amulet protects the two children, from the day of their birth until eternity . . .”
It was Mourad’s little vengeance. Because it had to protect the two infants, it was necessary, for the amulet to work, that both of them remain together under its aegis. And Mourad added, “This skin is an armor, an impermeable garment, but it can act only on the two children united.”
He placed the amulet at Jinane’s feet and delivered his prescription: “For seven days, the amulet must rest under the belly of Esther, the boy’s mother. For the next seven, it must rest beneath Jinane, the girl’s mother. After that, it must be hung on the wall, above the two children.”
“But you know very well, Rabbi, that Jinane is here temporarily,” Poupy complained. “She’ll leave in a few days with the little girl. How can we hang the amulet above the two children if one stays here with his mother, in his family, and the other goes elsewhere, into hers?”
Mourad, a little smile at the corner of his lips, raised his arms towards heaven in a gesture of impotence. O Mourad, you have inherited from your ancestors, the time-honored
Kabbalists, this cunning, the demons’ weapon, with which demons are combated. O Mourad, what thought crossed your mind? Do you know that your writing sealed these two children’s fate? Why wasn’t writing reserved for the gods? Why was this weapon of cunning and plots placed in human hands?
An interview with Tobie Nathan
“Although I left Egypt, Egypt never left me.”
JZ: In your memoir, Ethno-roman, you state that you were born in 1948, “the year the Middle East was born, with a wound right at its center—Israel.” Your novel A Land Like You begins in 1917 and ends in 1952, on Black Saturday, the day Cairo burned. What led you to explore and represent the lives of Jews in Egypt before your birth?
TN: You know, Joyce, I love my father a great deal. Although he is dead now, he is always right here beside me. Sometimes, when I gaze at myself in the mirror, it’s him I see and not me, as if I were offering him a portion of life alongside mine, within mine. I often take out the photos of him I still have: I study them, I rearrange them, I redo them as drawings, I color them in. And so, to write about the Jews of Egypt before my birth is to depict for myself my parents’ lives—my father’s life most of all—in this world I never knew. If you look closely, you’ll see that my hero, Zohar, is a bit younger than my father. He is born in 1925, while my father was born in 1912. You could say I granted my father a few extra years to live!
JZ: Why is it important to tell the stories of Egypt’s Jews?
TN: The telling of the story of the Jews of Egypt is infinite. Jews were present in Egypt since the fifth century before the Common Era. On Elephantine Island, across from Aswan, they had an important community which even built its own temple in the third century B.C.E. They were still there in the eleventh and twelfth centuries of the common era, in the town of Fustat, the birthplace of Cairo, where the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, doctor and advisor to Salah al-Din, lived. In the nineteenth century, Jews were especially involved in the modernization of old Egypt. They founded banks, opened large stores (Cicurel, Shemla), contributed to the creation of the Suez Canal. They were there at the origin of the first democratic parties, most notably the Wafd. Their history is a true mythology.
JZ: Your main character’s name is Zohar Zohar, “the jewel of the jewels.” We know that the Zohar is the central text of mystical Judaism, the Kabbalah. Do you want readers to be thinking about the Kabbalah as they read your novel? How is it relevant to the story you tell?
TN: The story of Egypt’s Jews resembles the founding myth of Judaism. As you know, in the Bible we thank God again and again for having taken us out of Egypt. Yet we know this to be a myth, as today’s archaeologists have determined with near certainty that the Jews were never slaves in Egypt. Moreover, the Biblical text was most likely written between the eighth and the sixth centuries B.C.E., at least seven centuries after the purported exodus from Egypt. The celebrated Exodus that we commemorate every year at Passover is thus a mythical event. But although the Jews never left Egypt in antiquity, they were most certainly chased out at one time—in 1956, by Nasser! We must face the facts: there was only one exodus from Egypt, the one that we, the last Jews of Egypt, endured. This modest community, which boasted no more than 70,000 souls in its heyday, was a flourishing one. Today, no one remains, except for a few elderly women struggling to preserve forgotten synagogues. We are the myth! That’s what I wanted to show in my book. Our expulsion is not simply an accident of history, it harbors a hidden meaning. That’s one of the factors that led me to name my hero Zohar. But, having said that, I should note that the name is not entirely invented. There were Zohar families in Egypt. But I doubt that any one of them gave the first name Zohar to one of their children.
JZ: While Zohar is the son of Esther and Motty—a young woman thought to have been possessed by a demon and a blind man with a gift for numbers and the recitation of the Song of Songs—he is also said to be the son of the “zars.” Who are the zars? Why did you bring them into your novel?
TN: Tradition has it that the zars are spirits who like to possess humans, especially women—making use of their bodies and their voices, living through their presence. This tradition is very ancient (it was mentioned as far back as Herodotus), and most likely of Ethiopian origin. Yet you can find it today all along the Nile valley, in the Sudan most certainly, in Nubia, and, clearly, in Egypt. A tradition that hearkens back to an era when monotheisms did not yet exist, it accommodated itself to different religions over the centuries. The zars are Christian among the Ethiopians of Gondar, whose rituals have been meticulously described by Michel Leiris; they are Muslim in the Sudan and in Egypt, where some Jewish women also participated in the rituals. That’s true of Esther, my hero’s mother. The zars can be thought of as earth spirits, transcending all differences, not belonging to one religious group or another.
Today in Egypt, the zar cults are persecuted by an Islam that grows more rigid and totalitarian by the day—so much so that the few rituals that remain are conducted in secret.
I like the cult of the zar, just as I like all forms of magic, because there’s not one bit of racism when it comes to magic.
JZ: It just occurred to me that Zohar and zar sound quite similar… Is this a significant echo?
TN: In Arabic these two words do not at all sound alike, since Zohar is pronounced djohar in classical Arabic and gohar in Egyptian Arabic.
JZ: Many of your characters are invented, though perhaps based on your family’s stories. But there are also some very real figures—King Farouk, Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and others. Why did you bring these figures into your tale? What historical research did you do?
TN: You’re right, the invented characters have borrowed some features from people in my past or in my family. But as you know, characters in a novel soon claim their right to live their own lives—so much so that today I couldn’t say from whom I borrowed this or that trait. As for the historical figures, they are in keeping with reality. If you look carefully, you’ll see that all the events I describe in the book, from the first demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ismailia to the burning of Cairo, scrupulously respect historical truth. Of course I had to immerse myself in careful historical research. I must have read all the books published about Farouk, a great number of books about Nasser, and Sadat’s two autobiographies. In short, a novel doesn’t just come to you; it takes a lot of reading, a lot!
JZ: Although the main character in your novel is a young man, Zohar, there are extraordinarily strong female characters in the novel: Esther, the kudiya [the priestess of the zar cult], Masreya. What is the importance of these female figures? What allows you to go so deeply into the psyches of these women?
TN: There’s also Jinane, Masreya’s mother, who to my mind is the book’s most important female character. All these strong women represent for me women’s power in a world where women are stripped of power. I wanted to explore this power. I know something of it, having experienced it during my childhood, and also because I had the chance to meet many women with this secret power, both during my travels through the world and in my consulting-room. Indeed, in violently patriarchal worlds like so many Muslim countries, you see the development of women’s secret strength, which manifests in several realms: in the arts of magic and sorcery, in the material organization of life (among the poor, it’s women who control the money) and, for some, in music and dance. These were the three dimensions I wanted to describe as closely as I could.
JZ: Among the three main male Jewish characters, Joe, Nino, and Zohar, one is a Zionist, one is an Arab nationalist, and the third is “just Zohar, Zohar Zohar.” Does any one of them represent your viewpoint? What led you to show these three possibilities for Egypt’s Jews?
TN: I’ve certainly known these three types of characters in life—and also in literature. Among Egyptian Jews, very few were Zionist. It’s understandable, because the existence of the State of Israel created a tension that very quickly made their lives in Egypt impossible. Exacerbated by the preaching of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim Brotherhood, the notion of a “fifth column” at the heart of the Egyptian state progressively asserted itself after the Second World War. And so, Jews did everything they could not to appear to be Zionist. A strategy doomed to failure, because the Egyptians thought of them as Zionist no matter what. A fringe group of intellectuals, often communist, made common cause with Egypt’s masses. Such was the well-known case of Henri Curiel, one of the founders of Egypt’s communist party. And a small part of this small part tipped over, converting to Islam and joining even the most militant groups. That’s what happened with Benny Levy’s older brother, Eddy, who would become Adel Rifaat after his conversion; he shared the pseudonym Mahmoud Hussein with Bahgat Elnadi, a great specialist in the Qur’an.
As for Zohar, he resembles the majority of Egyptian Jews, continuing to think of himself as Egyptian despite the expulsion, feeling himself a child of this land despite many of its inhabitants.
JZ: Zohar and his family live in Cairo’s medieval Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yahud, which you describe as “those few narrow streets crammed with synagogues and saints’ tombs, known as the hara, the alley.” All the other Egyptian Jewish memoirs we have to date have focused on Jews living in Cairo and Alexandria’s elegant downtowns. What led you to set your novel in the hara?
TN: Because I like to think that all the Egyptian Jews came from there. I know it’s not entirely true, that there were many immigrants, coming a little bit from everywhere—from the Maghrib, from Turkey, but also Ashkenazi Jews from Poland, Russia, Austria, Germany. But the heart of the community is the sand of the hara, the mud of the Nile banks. I wanted to show that we are “of the earth, of this land.”
JZ: You’ve worked for 45 years as an ethnopsychiatrist and published 28 books on your work. You have also published 13 novels, starting with Saraka Bô [Take out the offerings]. How has your work as an ethnopsychiatrist informed your fiction? How has your fiction informed your psychoanalytic work?
TN: I don’t think my work as a clinician has much influenced my novels. I would even say: quite the opposite! I began to write novels in 1993, while my first theoretical text appeared in 1977. And I began to write novels precisely because the clinical texts appeared to me incapable of rendering the nuances of psychological functioning. So, I wanted to express what I understood from my patients in the intimacy of their lives. That’s why I began to write fiction.
JZ: In your recent book, Wandering Souls, you call yourself a perpetual migrant. What do you mean by that? What do migrants have to teach the rest of us?
TN: By calling them “wandering souls,” I’m trying to make sense of a phenomenon, very present in Europe and especially in France: the radicalization of young people born to immigrant parents and who convert to a militant Islam. I wanted to explore this, not from the outside, like most studies on this subject, but from the inside, starting with their internal psychological needs. As I studied them, I realized that these young people were like me. Not that I’ve ever felt the slightest attraction to Islamist ideology, but I recalled that at the age of eighteen I too had been caught by an ideology, Marxism. And I wondered why children of migrants are so attracted to ideologies. That’s how I began to write Wandering Souls.
When you emigrate, you lose some part of your confidence in the world, the connection between words and things. This is what turns migrants into people who are always anxious, but also especially creative.
We have much to learn from migrants, recognizing that, very soon, in a globalized world, we will all be migrants, more or less.
JZ: Is there any writer you consider an important influence on your fiction?
TN: For me, the prince of all writers is Isaac Bashevis Singer because he knows that, aside from language, the writer’s most important function is the creation of original tales. Singer also knows that in this extraordinary work of creating tales, you must know how to plumb the traditions of your own tribe. Singer is a little bit my model!
JZ: What new works do you have planned?
TB: I am in the process of completing my new theoretical book that titled The Therapist’s Secrets. In it I recount the originality of clinical work in ethnopsychiatry. I hope you’ll read it!
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