In A KL Minute

One of the things that amazes me the most – even four months in – is how close everything is within Kuala Lumpur. This morning I decided to watch the new Stars Wars movie and it was no more than a ten minute drive: finding a reasonable parking spot took longer.

The last time I lived in Malaysia, it was on the outskirts of Kajang, and any journey into or out of Kuala Lumpur took approximately 45-60 minutes, worse if traffic was more unkind. So any plans would need to have factored in the time element: want to watch a show at 11am? To be safe, leave the house at 9.30am. A meeting at 5pm? Make sure you’re already on the road by 3.15pm.

I took a conscious decision to live in KL because over the 18 years that I have spent in the UK, I was never more than a 30 minute walk or bike ride away from work; and the thought of living in Bangi where my parents’ homestead is and spend – at a bare minimum, 90 minutes a day – on the road, felt untenable, alien – and a waste of time. It seemed… inefficient, with little gains to be made in other respects. [My brothers and sisters, for instance, live with the commute because they gain in terms of childcare, property prices and quality of family life living where they do].

And I must say this lack of distance, this ability to be anywhere within a 10-20 minute drive or cab ride, continues to make me smile. It’s actually privilege… and sometimes it makes me feel guilty. Not having to sit in traffic is something I am lucky to be able to afford: both financially and as a lifestyle choice.

These are the small, small things that make a big, big difference sometimes. It’s strange, it’s alien, it’s unsettling, even. In fact, the whole city still feels strange, alien and unsettling. It’s been over four months, and I bet it will still feel like this in four decades. Kuala Lumpur is a dynamic city, always under construction, always with a shifting underbelly that you miss if you blink too slowly. I think I’m going to end up even more lost when I leave than when I arrived, but I think that’s alright.

Summers past

Sometimes memories create false illusions about dimensions: buildings seem taller, bullies seem bigger, distances seem longer. Time, though, never seems to expand or contract, for me. Especially summer time. And for a 9-year old, what that meant, over 30-years ago, was endless time to be outside; endless time to play; endless time of sunshine.

I am sure the bit about sunshine is a trick of the mind, because I grew up in Northern England, and it was many things, but no, not sunny. But the summer of 1986 felt like that.

I remember that summer for one of three reasons: two peculiar to that year, and one consistent over the four years we lived there.

The first was the onset of a summer Ramadan – my curiosity at what fasting felt like took over my sensibilities and I opted to try and go without during the daylight hours a few times. I found out that it wasn’t water or food that was my undoing, but the crinkle of the crisps packet my two younger siblings were devouring near me. I actually managed a respectable six days out of thirty that year.

Second was the World Cup, and the introduction of pain, heartache, disbelief and a sense of injustice that has stayed with me as an England fan ever since. Maradona’s Hand of God goal, I think, destroyed my belief in the system, and had me shaking my fist (clenched not unlike Diego Armando’s) at the sky in anger for the first time. I don’t think I have completely regained my faith in my fellow man since.

Third – and this, not peculiar to 1986, for it was a recurring theme – was being able to play outside until well past 8pm. Once school was out, bedtimes were stretched and it wasn’t uncommon for me to still be playing as the sun dipped behind the taller buildings of Kepier Court. Often, it was past nine before I made it back to our flat – knocking furiously on the door wanting to be let in, knowing full well I would be met with scorn and potentially a twist of the ear; not to mention a barrage of nagging which I would conveniently erase any memory of the next day.

My mom, in the summer of 86, was about eight months pregnant with number 4, his arrival imminent unlike the setting of the sun on those glorious days when school was out.

Part of the reason why I was home past nine – and well after my sister had arrived home herself – was because I wandered a bit further away from our flat; still within Kepier Court, but to a patch of grass in between two or three buildings hidden from the main paths. The reason why I wanted to be here was because I wanted to play football with the boys, but I could not risk being seen doing so either by my father, who pretty much forbade it for me, or any of his friends or other Malaysians who knew me, because this raised the risk of them mentioning it to my father.

Not that they were tattling – telling on me was the strict purvey of my sister – but because they were unaware that my parent’s firstborn, by virtue of being a girl, was not allowed to kick balls for fun. If they saw me playing, it was likely they’d mention it in passing if they saw my parents, who would smile, nod and give me a right rollocking after they left.

On days when I could not get enough people to play football – or when I deemed the other kids playing outside were not good enough to challenge me to a good game – I opted for a game of rounders. This was much more difficult to manage than it sounds, because there wasn’t that much open space to make up the bases around which we were meant to run past. In the end any old square worked, and as long as the Libyan kids brought down with them their cricket bat and a tennis ball, we could get a game going.

We never played cricket, though, although logistics wise that was much, much simpler to set up. It was a ‘boys’ game’ and I was afraid I’d be caught doing that, because the open space available was right outside our flat: so my mother or my father could just pop their head out and see.

I don’t know what it was that my parents wanted to achieve by not allowing me to play football – or do anything associated with it, bar watching it on tv. (I wasn’t even allowed a football computer game). Or maybe I do, or at least, I am able to hazard a guess.

But the impact of not allowing me made the forbidden fruit much, much sweeter; that all through my life I have never been able to leave the game behind. As an adult I am a fan, a player, an enthusiast, a occasional researcher and now a qualified coach of the beautiful game.
So maybe if you want your kid to be a musical genius the way forward is not to make him play his violin days on end, but to ban him from it, so that a rebellious desire would arise that would quickly spin into an obsession that may forage a path towards excellence.
Ah, those long summer days.

Every day this week that I come home from work well past six but still can enjoy the sun, I am reminded of Kepier Court. In my eighteen years here as an adult woman, I have only managed to visit it once; but funnily enough the same structures I remembered as a child were still there: the rusty slide, the monkey bars, the hamster wheel, the odd tree in the middle of the hill we sled down in winter.

And for some reason, they didn’t feel taller, bigger, or longer, when I last saw them. They felt stuck in time, and poetically, aptly so- immortalised as they are bound to be, in that state forever, because when I was planning to visit a few years ago, I checked and found out Kepier Court is no more.

Diari Ramadhan Idlan – Episod 2: Hari Kerja

It is day 2 of Ramadhan, and arguably, it is the first few days that throw you off balance. Today is no different. My body and my system is adjusting to the new food-intake regime, and it typically reacts by throwing a few aches and pains in different places. A tantrum, if you will.

It will calm down, I know so, because it always has. You just got to get through the first few days.

Last year was a bit of a bonus for me, because Ramadhan happened on a weekend so by the time I came in to work on the following Monday, my body had processed a lot of its adjustments. No such luck this year – Awal Ramadhan fell midweek.

What typically throws me a bit out of orbit is not so much the (lack of) food, as the sleep pattern. First of all, my bedtime has to be that bit later (I usually am in bed by 9.30pm) because sunset itself is about 9.30pm! Then I need to get up again at about 2.30am for sahur, and then try and get back to sleep a little after 3.30am. Which is all good if I don’t have an 8.30am or a 9am meeting; but life goes on when you’re fasting, you know?

So yeah, I end up going to work a bit tired, without the added perk that coffee offers first thing in the morning.

The only way to get around this, for me, is afternoon naps. I’ve never been much of a napper, especially in the afternoon. Is it just me, or when you get up from naps in the afternoon, you tend to feel quite out of sorts? I hate that feeling, so I’d rather soldier on (or grab a cup of strong black coffee) than face it.

It’s a challenge to make sure that your productivity levels stay approximately the same, despite changes to schedules. There are, of course, two ways to do this:

a) power on regardless

b) set a precedent of sub-optimal productivity during non-fasting months, so that productivity during the fasting month does not seem anomalous.

Guess which on I opted for? 😉

Diari Ramadhan Idlan – Episod 1: Sahur

Aku obses dengan sahur.

Sebab kalau tempoh berpuasa lebih kurang 18 jam, lepas tu kau terlepas sahur, maka menempa nahas lah esok nak kerja.

Ini begitu terbalik dengan suasana aku berpuasa kalau di Malaysia. Kalau di Malaysia, aku sekadar bangun dalam masa 15 minit terakhir, minum beberapa gelas air dan secawan nestum sebelum tunggu subuh. Sekadar ambil berkat sahur, kiranya. Memang tak berapa nak boleh makan nasi atau benda berat jam 5.30 pagi.

Dalam beberapa tahun kebelakangan ini, imsak lebih kurang jam 3 pagi. Ini bermakna aku bangkit bersiap untuk sahur lebih kurang 90 minit sebelum imsak. Kenapa? Sebab biasanya aku Isya’ dan terawih masa tu. Aku sebenarnya manusia yang tidur awal: tak cecah jam 9.30 dah away with the fairies. Suatu penyeksaan juga tahan mengantuk bila 9.30 tu kadang-kadang baru nak berbuka!

Biasanya Isya’ masuk jam 11 malam jadi aku masuk tido selalu belum Isya’.

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Aku ada kawan-kawan yang jenis bersengkang mata sampai subuh; maknanya dari Maghrib ke lebih kurang jam 3 pagi tu mereka tak tido. Aku tak mampu: pernah cuba dan masuk jam 12 tengah malam dah pening-pening lalat lantas terlelap. Sikiiiit lagi nak terlepas sahur. Tak buat dah sekarang.

Berbalik kepada sahur: setelah bertahun-tahun membaca dan mengkaji tentang slow-release foods, aku memang bersahur dengan ‘power shake’. Idea ini dicetuskan oleh seorang kawan, Jordan Macvay, di Twitter (atau mungkin Facebook) beberapa tahun dulu. Konsepnya mudah: blend oats, susu dan apa juga yang berkenan menjadi satu ‘milkshake’ lepas tu minum. Kadang-kadang aku letak kurma, kadang-kadang pisang, kadang-kadang avocado, kadang-kadang peanut butter. Kadang-kadang semua di atas.

Nak buat tu senang.

Nak telan, mungkin mencabar sikit, lebih lagi kalau tak biasa.

Bila rasa tak berapa nak lalu, aku kadang-kadang tambah jus buahan sikit kepada mixture yang aku blend, jadi dia agak relatively cair dan tak berapa thick: mudah nak minum.

Aku buat dalam 500ml shake ni, dan sambil terawih sambil aku minum sikit, selang-seli dengan minum air putih. Sebab kalau teguk semua sekali harung nanti kembung pulak. Kalau termuntah kan ke dah rugi sahurnya.

Alhamdulillah, aku dah amalkan sahur begini and so far so good. Takdelah letih sangat di waktu pagi, dan aku hanya mulai penat masuk jam 4 atau 5 petang. Jadi sekurang-kurangnya, dapat menjalankan tugas harian dengan kekangan minima.

Lagi satu yang penting, adalah air. Sepanjang hari ni aku hydrate hydrate hydrate. Aku akan cuba habiskan sekurang-kurangnya 2 liter antara berbuka dan imsak. Kalau aku jenis tak tidur sampai sahur, aku rasa mampu untuk lebih banyak minum. Ada kawan-kawan yang guna kaedah ini: makan secara berdikit-dikit antara berbuka dan imsak. Aku tak boleh. Aku nak tidur, haha.

Sebab aku tahu esok nanti badan akan mengalami sedikit shock to the system, aku cuba tektik baru tahun ini: aku mula latih perut makan sedikit dan lambat dari minggu lepas. Macam orang lari marathon. Perlahan-lahan tambah jarak sebelum race day.

Kita tengok macam mana hasilnya esok hari. Nantikan laporan…

Diari Ramadhan Idlan: Episod 0 – Pilot

The element of surprise.

Kadang-kadang, kita sudah menjangkakan sesuatu akan berlaku. Tetapi dalam pada itu, apabila masih ada ketidakpastian, perasaan pasti bercampur aduk. Rasa berdebar-debar. Hati tidak senang, jam di dinding dirujuk dan sepuluh saat terasa seperti sepuluh minit.

Tidak dapat diingat dengan tepat bila kali terakhir ada apa juga ketidakpastian di ambang Ramadhan di Malaysia. Biasanya, tarikh yang tercatat di kalendar kuda sudah tepat menentukan bila berakhirnya Syaaban. Dan dengan itu, sedikit keseronokan dalam ketidakpastian juga hilang.

Tapi di sini, masih ada sedikit elemen misteri yang menyeringai di balik anak bulan. Kebiasaannya kami menjenguk laman web Islamic Cultural Centre London seusai Maghrib, bila mana pengumuman tarikh 1 Ramadhan dibuat. Dalam tahun-tahun lewat ini, penantian ini berakhir agak lewat malam, kerana Maghrib pun tidak menjenguk sebelum jam 9pm.

Dalam hampir 18 tahun di sini, baru sekali rasanya Ramadhan di UK jatuh pada hari yang lebih awal dari dua kemungkinan. Masih aku ingat lagi malam itu, kelam kabut pergi ke Tesco (nasib baik 24 jam) mencari makanan dan sedikit bahan mentah untuk sahur dan berbuka esoknya. Bukan aku seorang yang terkejut malam itu – selang seorang dijumpai di lorong-lorong supermarket itu warga Muslim: tersengih-sengih melihat masing-masing terkocoh-kocoh.

Tahun ini Ramadhan di hemisfera utara jatuh pada musim panas; dimana matahari terbit jam 4 pagi dan hanya menghilangkan diri jam 9 malam. Sudah masuk tahun ke-lima atau ke-enam aku berpuasa lebih dari 16 jam. Sudah faham rentak badan pada hari-hari panjang ini. Sudah masuk zon alah bisa tegal biasa.

Sahlah, tahun ini 1 Ramadhan bermula lusa – Khamis 17 Mei, 2018. Hari di mana imsaknya sekitar 3.30 pagi; dan berbuka jam 8.58 malam. 17 jam 30 minit. Boleh tahan, hahaha.

Ramai yang bertanya sebenarnya pengalaman berpuasa panjang ini. Dan saban tahun juga bercerita, berkongsi pengalaman. Kali ini mahu dijiidkan, rasanya, di helaian-helaian laman sesawang.

Aku pun belum pasti bagaimana hendak menyusun kata-kata, sebenarnya. Nak guna aku? Saya? Berbahasa Melayu? Inggeris? Rojak? Formal? Tak formal? You overthink everything, kata si dia. Tulis sahaja.

Jadi aku kira aku akan bercerita. Tiada plot, tiada struktur, satu stream of consciousness in the spirit of blogs of Idlan past. Harapnya istiqamah, harapnya dapat mencetuskan semula semangat untuk menulis yang sekian lama terkubur dek diulik kesibukkan dunia.

Kalau ada masa, jenguklah ya sekali sekala?

18 again

“I bet I couldn’t do it”, my friend M said to me in one of our many Whatsapp group chats. “But you could”, I responded. Because when it comes to these things, you just plow through.

We were talking about these marathon Ramadhan fasts I am facing this year – and to be fair, have been facing for the past 4-5 years. When daybreak comes at 3am and the sun sets at well past 9pm.. well, you’re in for a treat of sorts. But it is do-able, if you hold on to two things: a) you need to strategise; and b) if you fall ill you can break your fast – just remember to make it up!

One of the most tricky things to manage is that very small window between Maghrib and Imsak. You literally have 6 hours to eat, drink and do terawih, as well as catch a nap if you’re wanting to do the night prayers. And if you ‘overnap’, the downside of missing your sahur at 3am is potentially.. painful, to say the least.

So during the summer fasts I change tack a bit from what I would usually do if I were fasting in Malaysia. Instead of breaking my fast with plate upon plate of food, I pace myself, starting with soup and bread, and then maybe a small portion of rice or meats. A small portion because as much as you want to eat for the world and then some, your stomach does not really want to cooperate on that count.

Plus, if you have a heavy meal when breaking your fast, chances are you may not want to eat as much when it comes to sahur. And anyone who has done these summer fasts know that getting it right at sahur goes a long way into making the next day a bit more bearable.

At sahur time I hold fast to the belief that oats, or any other long-release breakfast foods, are best. Whether in porridge form or blended as part of a smoothie concoction, I make sure I get my fair share before going back to bed.  I know we’ve all been taught not to go back to bed after Subuh prayers; but with Subuh being at 3.10am and a 6-hour gap between then and when I am meant to be at work.. I succumb.

During the day, I often do well until about 4 or 5pm. This is when fatigue starts to kick in, and energy levels dissipate. It’s a good thing this is also often the time I am off home from work anyway; so subtly I hope there is no noticeable impact on my normal productivity at work. This is something I feel quite strongly about – that fasting or not, it should not impair the quality of work that I put in day in day out. I don’t make a big show of telling people at work I am fasting – unless they ask, or I am offered food or a drink. I don’t know why I do this – I just think it’s a personal thing so I get on with it, rather than trying to find shortcuts.

These 18-hour fasts remind me of my first attempt at fasting. The year was 1986, I was 8 years old and Ramadhan that year came during May and June: so the hours then were comparable to what they are now. (I lived in the UK from 1984-1988 while my dad was pursuing his doctorate). If memory serves I managed 6 days that year – even while continuously being tempted by my 1 year old brother waddling in his nappy eating Spring Onion flavoured crisps. Although times have changed – he is now a strapping dad with the world’s cheekiest two year old son who survived his first tarawih!

Writing When Someone’s Not Looking: On Character

Last Thursday, I attended a debate-cum-discussion organised by the University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. What attracted me to the event wasn’t so much as its title: “Why Character Matters in Education” as the people who were going to speak to it. Tristram Hunt, Nicky Morgan, Estelle Morris and Michael Gove is perhaps as good as a who’s who top 5 of politicians you’d want on this topic, no less having at one point or another shared the position of Secretary of State for Education (or Shadow, as in the case of Hunt).

The interesting perspective, of course, comes from the fact that all four speakers come from the policy point of view, rather than that of the educator. (Yes, Tristram Hunt is a senior lecturer in history at QMUL, but he came to the event wearing his MP / Shadow Secretary hat). And while each speaker offered their own justification of why character mattered in education, a key theme recurred in their respective statements although Estelle Morris perhaps drove it home the most. That theme was of measurability.

In a world where what gets measured effectively does get managed, the speakers lamented the fact that the reason why character development takes a back seat to other matters especially in primary education is that it is not one of the factors upon which performance is measured upon: that is, you can write a test for English, Maths and Science, but  how would you measure character? Leave a £50 note in the corridor to see who turns it in instead of keeping it?

More pertinently, though, would you need to? I understand, coming from a policy-makers’ point of view, that the existence of a construct that could measure character, however incomplete, would allow it to be used as a benchmark and ultimately, be made to count in league tables. Once measurable and measured, we would be able to rank one against another; link pay and rewards to performance in these measures. Once quantified, we lull ourselves into thinking that it is objective; and we then, sometimes without realising it, adjust our behaviour to game the measures in our best interest.

Let’s face it, we are obsessed with ranking everything and anything: from the top holiday destinations to the best universities; from the quality of an education to the best cronuts. As consumers of rankings, we take the end result as is, very rarely questioning the underlying methodology which creates the scores that feed into the ranking system. For some reason, once a number is assigned to something, we assume it is objective, and we take it as a construct of truth.

We forget to inspect the underlying – that when ranking the top ten holiday destinations, we make assumptions about what makes a holiday destination good. Some of these assumptions are quite universal – the absence of a civil war in the country would be an example. But others are quite subjective – the existence of a swimming pool at a hotel would be a plus for some and a minus for others: how would one then incorporate such features into a ranking?

Extending this to something perhaps less trivial – say, the National Student Survey (NSS) scores which feeds into both university rankings and performance or promotion criteria for academic staff. In recent years, one question in that survey asked students whether they thought the course was challenging. For some students, a challenging course was a positive because it brought out the best in them; for others, a challenging course was a negative because it signalled their personal academic deficiencies. So how would you interpet the score for this, when the term ‘challenging’ in itself meant opposite things?

And so, coming back to character -something that we are unable to concretely define: how are we to measure this? In fact, do we need to measure this? Should we even attempt to do so, in the interest of quantitative benchmarks and performance rankings? There surely must be a line when it comes to measuring and ranking; a point at which we must realise that a poorly constructed measure is worse than having no measure at all.

Character is something that is difficult to observe, let alone measure. It borders on some of the more metaphysical things in life, like morality or faith; personal things which are embedded in the essence of who we are. Tristram Hunt quoted John Wooden’s definition of character being what he does when no one is watching – if this were to be upheld, then really character is a) largely unobservable by independent third parties and b) can only be measured by self-reporting; both rather questionable as ‘objective’ measures. (The interesting thing here is that someone of good character would probably be more honest when self-reporting; where as those devoid of it may more likely lie about it, hence creating some interesting constructs).

I speak of this as an academic coming from the branch of economics where attempting to quantify the unquantifiable is our bread and butter: for in accounting this is what we do. We assign values to things, to constructs that we are not too sure of; we make estimates and while we initially live with its limitations, through generally accepted practice (a cornerstone of how accountants operate) we forget and we think we are measuring something, where in actual fact we have only managed to roughly estimate its shadows.

But the very fact that character cannot be measured does not mean it should not be taught. The building of character through various means in education should not be ignored merely because it does not produce something that can be used as a ranking input. It could be argued that our very obsession with ranks and key performance indicators is what has led to the diminishing elements of character education: why invest in an activity that could prove to be detrimental to one’s performance indicators, even if in the long run it may bear worthy fruit?

And the fallout of that? Schoolchildren growing up to be young adults who enter university and subsequently the workplace with a view of attaining excellence at any cost. The proliferation of services where you are able to pay others to write essays for you – a well-known but hard-to-banish phenomenon infiltrating our universities today – is testament to basic economics: where there is demand there will be supply. Unlike cheating in exams, where one runs the risk of being caught red-handed; or plagiarising an essay, where there now exists software that can catch you out; using essay writing services can be harder to detect. There is a higher likelihood that you will be able to get away with it; which is where character then kicks in. At what price, that A you ‘earned’? That 2(1) you ‘delivered’? Nobody is looking, nobody knows – what would you do, asks John Wooden?

If we reach such a state in education – which I personally feel we are tootling towards at high speed- where we do things only because it leads to quantification, then we need to really sit and ask ourselves, to what end is this really education, and to what end is it mere learning? The very soul of education is in its process, and it that process is diluted more and more by money, profit and league tables, then we need to start admitting that we have sold our souls.

First foot forward

It made sense, at first. I had to perform the ghusl before Fajr prayers, and it didn’t make sense to shower, run and then shower again. I’ll just do it tomorrow, I thought to myself yesterday morning. My running schedule is spaced out on alternate days, but it’s not like I’m running a 10km every morning so much so that I’d constantly need a whole day’s recovery.

Of course, I didn’t actually check the weather forecast.

And as I looked out of the window at the frost on everyone’s car (and clearly, poor old Gomo too even though I covered him well last night), I figured a shower-run-shower-again combo would have been better than a run in -3 degrees.

I could have given it up, but of late, running in the morning before work has given me both a sense of structure and a sense of self. It put my head in the right place for the day ahead, and sometimes it even verged on the therapeutic. In fact, running therapised itself from becoming something I didn’t like very much, to becoming something I’d actually do.

And so out I trudged, doing the scheduled 4km and choosing a route that had two runs in two separate parks on the way. Birmingham has an abundance of these little parks just beyond the busy thoroughfares that make it Motor City. You just need to know where to look. On my last stretch back, through Pebble Mill Playing Fields, I saw other runners braving the cold. Clearly more dedicated than me, and at a faster pace, too. A few even nodded and waved, a mark of camaraderie, I suppose, and an acknowledgement to each other’s madness for venturing out on such a day.

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I have in the past confessed that for someone that does it quite a bit, I don’t like running. I don’t, really. I want to say that I am more of a people person and enjoy team sports more; but my reclusive nature that more and more people are beginning to attest to would say that’s a lie. My preference for sports such as football, badminton and those of its ilk lies in one thing: the ability to score, and the ability to win. I like winning, let’s put that on the table. And I’m not a fast runner, so running doesn’t offer me the opportunity to win, as much.

What made running really unenjoyable for me, in the beginning stages of my foray into this sport, was the fact that I could only push myself so much, and having failed to achieve a personal best every single day, for that was what winning entailed in my competitive mind, I got frustrated. I later found out about the run-walk movement, where the whole aim of the game is to run and walk rather than just continuously run. You start off walking more than running, and then ultimately as you get fitter, you flipped the process. So you’d end up with say, a 5-minute run and then a 2-minute fast walk, which when done in sets of 10, could pretty well get you to 10km or beyond. And that gave me more of a sense of achievement – doing a decent 10km, than huffing and puffing to run 6o minutes straight and then feeling dejected having failed to do so.

Allowing myself to do something which I am nowhere near good at has been excellent therapy for someone who is used to doing well in most things that she tries. It humbles you, and humility is never a bad thing.

And so I run.

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