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Mystics, monarchs and messiahs
Tensions that motivate change in Iranian society

October 7, 2003
The Iranian

Epilogue in Kathryn Babayan's Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs (Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 2003). Babayan is associate professor of Iranian History & Culture at the University of Michigan.

We began our cyclical journey with the greater Mediterranean world of late antiquity when prophets like Jesus, Mani, and Muhammad entered the debate over authority with a monotheistic response and universal vision. The body of the book focused on a microhistory of Safavi Iran as a way of capturing some early modern alternatives; manifestations of the dialogue between Semitic, Indo-Iranian, and Hellenic cultures that continued to resist the monotheist impulse to delay the meeting of the holy with the human until the end of time.

I would like to close with a larger picture of the history of modernity in Iran to trace a trajectory into the future of some of the book's actors, the motifs they invoked, and the desires they revealed. My conclusions will be brief; they are afterthoughts on the significance of the Safavi episode in Islamic history, more particularly, in those lands where the Persian language came to dominate politically.

Throughout the narrative, I have tried to identify a Persianate ethos recognized and practiced by a variety of ethnic groups--Persians, Turks, Kurds--and religious groups--Alid, Imami, Mazdean--living in Anatolia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; each providing its own particular renderings. Mazdean and Alid features of Persianate culture shared symbols such as the Persian language, the sun, the mystic, the monarch, and the messiah, or the ritual commemoration of the drama of Karbala, creating a sense of "group belonging" that I have at times referred to as an identity. This cultural system uttered in the Persian dialect was transmitted through epics like the Shahname and the Abu Muslimname and translated into Turkic dialects spoken as far east as Samarqand and westward all the way to Istanbul.

Identification with a Persianate ethos was not necessarily bound to a territory, a body that would be grounded in modern Iran with the advent of the West and the entire imperialist project of modernity that mapped the contours of nation-states. Attempts to confine heteroglossia, to fuse a single Persianate language, were visible impulses in the Safavi world. In this centrifugal process, lands that came to be controlled by the Safavis (mamalik-i mahrusah), referred to in the chronicles as Iranzamin, the "Land of Iran," were marked by binary tensions between Alid and Mazdean idioms. Although a spectrum of meanings ran through these two poles, their dialectic shaped the rhythms of history that permeated Safavi oral and written culture.

I have emphasized a number of ways in which common signs were given signification through these two sites of representation and how each came to incorporate shared icons into their particular cognitive styles, memory-narratives, and ritual expressions. Explorations into the cosmos of the Qizilbash and Nuqtavis served as examples, providing social and political texture for these symbols as well as glimpses into the ways in which they were experienced. In early modern Safavi Iran, Mazdean and Alid domains of signification overlapped, and as we saw with the Nuqtavis and Qizilbash, boundaries were porous; one could easily slip into the universe of the other.

By the end of seventeenth century with the writing of an oppressive Safavi discourse and the physical assault on sufi ghulat, cyclical time, the "way of metempsychosis," was to have officially been silenced. The successful erasure of ghuluww-tainted figures--Ali's third son, Muhammad b. Hanafiyya, and his avenger, Abu Muslim--from the pages of Shi'i history was accompanied by an enumeration of excesses that violated the tenets of Islam.

A decree in 1694 was to be read in all mosques, in some even inscribed in stone: provincial governors, aldermen, and judges were to enforce the word of God. Functionaries who had neglected the shari'a in the past were punished. Wine bottles from court cellars were publicly smashed in the central square of Isfahan. Music and dance were to cease at all weddings, and in male and female gatherings. Sodomy, prostitution, and gambling were banned. Coffeehouses were closed down. Opium and "colorful herbs" were declared illegal. Islamic garb was to be enforced. It was in the name of Divine Law that these practices were marked as abhorrent.

Although these shari'a-based denunciation were not new impulses, with the Safavi patronage of Shi'i scholars, judges, and preachers, the foundations of a religious establishment were actualized. Through institutions like the mosque, theological seminaries, and religious endowments (waqf), the Shi'i clergy could now take part in the game of politics. Hence, a new stock character entered the dynamics of Iranian history--the jurisconsult (mujtahid) who was privy to knowledge of the word of God.

These Shi'i scholars challenged charismatic mystics thanks to a theological school (Usuli), which sanctioned the position of specialists in Divine Law as the sole intermediaries between the believer and God. In the absence of the Hidden Imam, these specialists not only claimed direct access to God, some like Mulla Qassim in Safavi Isfahan and Khomeini in contemporary Iran, would argue that political rule was reserved for them as well. With the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the mujtahid would eclipse the figure of the monarch.

Idealists and visionaries continued to voice their desire for alternative visions of justice. A longing for immediate contact with the holy and a hope to experience a utopia on earth was expressed through a familiar apocalyptic language of change. The break with cyclical time and a gnostic way of being had not been complete in Safavi Iran. Believers continued to anticipate Messiahs who emerged from mystical circles, unveiling new cycles of revelation. Groups like the Ahl-i Haqq and the Nusayris in western Asia, the Naqshbandis in the east, and the Alevis in Turkey still practice these beliefs. Political vicissitudes shaped the degree to which so-called "exaggerated" utterances could be voiced publicly, or on the margins of secrecy.

Today in republican Turkey, with the rise of a shari'a-minded consciousness organized into political parties, the secular government has in fact encouraged Alevi expression in the hope of mitigating religious orthodoxy. Heresy and orthodoxy continue to define each other; what distinguishes each meaning has much to do with the one who does the defining. For some Shi'i ghulat, revenge was no longer articulated against the Sunni oppressors of the family of the Prophet. Although they continued to resist the hegemony of rationalist theologians patronized by monarchs like the Qajars (1785-1925), a new enemy had emerged on the scene with the advent of Western imperialism, whether in the form of the British or the Russians. Some dervish groups came to interpret colonialism as a sign of the end of time.

In Central Asia (Marv), the Englishman Joseph Wolff, traveling in the middle of the nineteenth century, captures some of these readings. As one dervish claimed, "[T]he English people are now Timur, for they are descendents of Ghengis Khan. The Inglees will be the conquerors of the world." Another Turkmen is held to have said that "the Russians shall be the conquerors of the world," while a dervish from Patna framed the British dominance of India in apocalyptic terms. The different ways in which the West was incorporated into the consciousness of Muslims reveals not only a strand that read colonial rule as old prophecies foretold in the corpus of Muslim eschatological traditions, but other Muslims perceived the West as a site of cultural, spiritual, and political resistance.

Apocalyptic thinking continued to resonate with the ways in which history was interpreted and lived by a variety of Muslims in nineteenth-century Qajar Iran. Astrological calculations in synchronicity with Shi'i eschatological traditions set the date 1844 as a fatal year when a variety of millenarian responses were voiced within the Shi'i community--Nimatullahi, Isma'ili, Babi--and, beyond, among a heteroglot Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jewish population living in Persianate landscapes.

Some like the Nurbakhshi Hajji Muhammad Na'ini chose to emphasize a return to the Persian past, claiming that "ere long will Iran be made the shrine around which will circle the people of the earth." Others like the Bab articulated change from within the Shi'i paradigm of the return of the Hidden Imam to initially declare himself as his Gate in 1844, and then to go public as the Imam himself (1848)--the manifestation of God.

Yet it would be another prophet, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, known as Baha'ullah, the "Glory of God" (1817-1892), who emerged out of the Babi movement with a universal vision that had evolved through its Mazdean and Abrahamic cycles to express an alternative worldview cognizant of a new global reality. Baha'ullah continued to repudiate the hegemony of a Shi'i rationalist school (Usuli) who sought to seal prophecy after Muhammad as a solution to the debates over authority that the Imami community had to revisit with the occultation of the twelfth Imam (874 C.E.) and a renewed expectation of his appearance. Echoing traditions of ghuluww, Baha'ullah saw revelation as a process, each cycle progressively illuminating new layers of the divine message. As Ismael Velasco has aptly put it, "Baha'u'llah appropriated not merely the pre-Islamic past but, crucially, the non-Islamic present, to predicate a post-Islamic future."

Persianate religious dissent had throughout Islamic history challenged cultural hegemonies that attempted to rationalize religion, severing direct and intimate contact between the holy and the divine in the name of Islam. Those Persians who embraced Baha'ullah's message, whether Shi'i scholars, Qajar royalty, courtiers, sufis, craftsmen, Zoroastrians, or Jews, were responding to similar pressures. Critical of the Shi'i clerical establishment, Baha'ullah imagined a utopia where religious liberty and human equality fostered heteroglossia. What distinguished Baha'ullah from other like-minded Iranian reformists was that he was speaking as the spokesman of God.

Baha'ullah's ideal society was not secular, for he lamented the spiritual and ethical decay in the West, associating it with the erosion of religion and its replacement with reason. Instead, Baha'ullah legitimized the sovereignty of monarchs, but independently of clerical authority. These two bodies were to remain separate but joined, a tradition he recalled back to the "Covenant of Ardashir," locating it within a Persian genealogy of sovereignty.

Baha'ullah was speaking in the language of Persianate culture for an audience who understood it. But as Juan Cole has persuasively argued, Baha'ullah was ascribing meanings to the notion of justice that were now indeed global ideals that had found realization in the American Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and even the religious freedom and equality of minorities expressed in the Ottoman Tanzimat. Such ideals were being encountered at a time when Europe was building world empires, expanding militarily into Islamic territories.

An insidious cultural imperialism provoked a crisis of identity, shaping a multitude of "Muslim" constructions of itself and the "West" till this day. Baha'ullah was critical of European militarism, but he admired their technological advancements and egalitarian beliefs. He used examples of Achaemenid glory and tolerance to bolster pride so as to shake the Iranian out of his sorry state of subjugation, rejecting the racist orientalist arguments internalized by some Iranians, seeing themselves as inferior to the Europeans. As Velasco has succinctly put it:

Baha'ullah appropriated the idiom not just of Persianate Islam, but also of the West and used it to resist its cultural hegemony. In other words, the Baha'i teachings opened an avenue for a new, post-Islamic identity that promised to overcome and finally resolve the cultural (and by implication political and social) tensions of the day. They also posed an unmistakable challenge to the existing order. What was seen by some Persians as the fulfillment of Islam was regarded by others as its open subversion.

Baha'ullah articulated his universal language of liberty and justice from within the framework of Shi'i ghuluww. Only once Bahai'sm was established as a new religion, however, defining itself as the fulfillment of Shi'i messianic expectations and broke with the shari'a, unveiling a new universal revelation did Babism became tagged as ghuluww. As in the case of the Nuqtavis, it is the pubic revelation of a new order that promises paradise on earth, which marks the boundaries of ghuluww. But unlike the universalism of the Nuqtavis, whose alchemical conception of the cosmos imagined all spiritual and material creation as equal, Baha'ullah's universalism transcended the Nuqtavi need to emphasize a Persian Ajami identity.

Perhaps this had something to do with the particular historical context of each prophet. After Mongol rule, Pasikhani was confronted with a fragmented Caspian Sea region, in which a plethora of regional messianic movements rose in the name of Ali and emphasized the prestige of Muahammad's family (sayyid). Baha'ullah, on the other hand, lived in an age in which not only Iran but the entire Abode of Islam was colonized by the West. The advent of technicalism and European world hegemony ushered in an era in which localisms no longer remained isolated within regional dynamics, but were now intimately connected to a global society.

What happened in Tehran came to matter to London and Paris, just as these two European capitals would prevail on Tehran. The late antique language of apocalyptics in its Abrahamic mode shared by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures was indeed a unifying system. It took a consciousness like that of Baha'ullah to recognize this and to creatively reinterpret eschatology as a spiritual revolution that promised the integrity and freedom of all citizens of the world.

Identification with a Persian past and the will to return to it resurfaced in modernity, although it took on a very different incarnation in the form of Iranian nationalism with the chauvinistic flair characteristic of nationalist visions. Binary tensions between what was officially identified as Mazdean and Alid continued to mark the history of Iran.

The Safavis as agents of official culture had produced a dominant discourse that crystallized this dual image, shaping a sense of "Iranianess" for the future denizens of modern Iran. The ebb and flow of Iranian history gravitated around imaginations in which both Shi'i and Iranian symbols were used to construct narrative memories. How governments manipulated these two symbolic repositories, which aspects were appropriated, redefined, and branded as excess shaped the trajectory of the history of modern Iran.

I have isolated three memory hooks on which a Persian past fastened itself--the Persian language (alphabet, poetry, and epics), the solar calendar, and the physical ruins of pre-Islamic Iran. These symbolic resources would be mobilized and reanimated during the next three centuries following Safavi rule. Both the successor dynasties of the Qajars (1785-1925) and the Pahlavis (1925-79) began to rewrite Iranian history with different degrees of emphasis on pre-Islamic Iran, supplanting or writing out Shi'ism in the process.

Safavi representations of the Mazdean sun, a symbol of sacral kingship, and the Shi'i lion, evoking Ali's chivalric struggles for truth, were fused together, serving as twin symbols of monarchy. Qajar imagery added a crown that enshrined the lion-and-sun as though visually asserting the power of kingship over civil and religious domains. A process was set in motion that formalized the lion-and-sun symbol into a national emblem of Iran written into the first Iranian Constitution of 1906.

Afsaneh Najmabadi has unraveled this fascinating trajectory, exposing the layers of meaning and the iconic shifts embedded in this single sign that continues to enjoy multiple associations of "Iranianess." Her readings illuminate the gendered and sexual impulses behind the evolution of this icon, relating it to the project of modernity that introduced ideals such as romantic marriage and heterosexual love under the gaze of the West. In the process of standardizing this symbol, she delineates the ground that was laid out for competing and contesting meanings of "Iranianess" to emerge in time.

Just as the sun came to shine its feminine face and the masculine lion became her partner, the lion-and-sun came to be associated with early Qajar kingship. Gradually, as the sun began losing all her feminine features toward the end of Qajar rule, she was transformed into an abstract circle, finally to be desexualized by Reza Shah Pahlavi. In Irano-Muslim culture in which male bisexuality was the norm, it would not be embarrassing for a monarch to be associated with a bigendered imperial logo. But as the Western perception of sodomy as "unnatural" became internalized by an elite of Iranians exposed to the West, the female figure had to be veiled in a male-dominated national iconography.

With the Pahlavis, the lion-and-sun symbol became so associated with an oppressive Westernizing monarchy that the Islamic Revolution that toppled it replaced it with Arabic calligraphy inscribing the monotheism of the new regime. With the victory of a rationalist interpretation of the word of God, a single language of Shi'ism was imposed by a Shi'i clergy that had now established a theocracy as agents of God, and perhaps at the behest of the Mahdi himself embodied by Imam Khomeini in the popular imagination. It was a Persian past that was now being erased.

As Najmabadi points out, although the lion had a definite iconic association with Ali in Safavi and Qajar visual culture, it was eliminated in the era of Islamic rule as a national symbol. Returned to its previous religious domain, it was to be displayed in banners hoisted during Muharram commemorations marking the martyrdom of Husayn. Although in 1979, Ali and his progeny had in reality appropriated the authority of monarchs and messiahs, and religion and politics had merged once again, the lion had been contaminated by Pahlavi kingship with its reintroduction into a Persian symbolic field.

The lion that had been a symbol of Rustam's heroism in the Shahname and an Irano-Semitic icon of kingship in medieval Iran was marked with the figure of Ali and would be fused during the Safavi episode with Shi'ism. The lion was returned to its old domain of identification with the Qajars and Pahlavis defined by their opponents, the Islamic Republic, as a sign of the historically corrupt regimes of Persian shahs. What was deemed as old was in fact a synthesis of the old and the new, for Ali and the Imams were now speaking in Persian.

Ironically, it is the West with its interest in archaeology and its reintroduction of Greek histories that preserved an interpretation of the Iranian past beyond what had been commemorated in Ferdowsi's Shahname that the ruins of Persepolis and the Sasani palace of Ctesiphon would provide the legitimacy for a new form of Persian revival. French archaeologists who had a monopoly over Iranian antiquities under the late Qajars began to provide scientific backing to a mytho-history of Persian glory.

In a step to reclaim Iran's integrity as a nascent nation-state, Reza Shah revoked the French concessions of 1895 and 1900 through an act of parliament in 1927, and came to personally protect the material remains of an Iranian past for his program of nation-building. With his establishment of the Museum of Iran Bastan (1937) inspired architecturally by the Sasani Palace at Ctesiphon, Reza Shah began to codify a singular meaning for these ruins. No longer were they signs of Persian glory that alerted Arab or Iranian Muslims to the success of Islam and the mutability of Persian kingship, but rather they were to be read and felt as sights of ancient pride to be recalled into the present sense of "Iranianess."

Reza Shah officially recast his nation as Iran, a term used locally, rather than the Western appellation "Persia," which had entered European discourse through the Greek designation of their enemy, the Persians who ruled from Fars. He also chose a new name for his family, adopting the term "Pahlavi" that designated the ancient language of Iranians before the Arab conquest, before Arabic words colonized the Persian alphabet. Although it is related that Reza Shah had forgotten his own Iranian past, prompting him to ask an American orientalist, Donald Wilber, the meaning of the word "Pahlavi," Reza Shah was not only responding to an Iranian inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West.

A current of Iranian nationalism was active among scholars like Sadiq Kiya and Ibrahim Purdavus, the very first professors who taught in the Department of Archaeology, established in 1937 at the Tehran University by Reza Shah. Sadiq Kiya published his research on the Nuqtavis in a journal he had established with like-minded colleagues entitled Iran Kudeh, "The Land of Iran." Such Persian impulses had been voiced earlier in Qajar Iran by intellectuals and politicians like Akhunzadeh and Mirza Aqa Khan Kirmani.

These men confirmed Ferdowi's project as a "lieu de memoire," seeing it as a pivotal text for the continuity of Persian culture and its resilience against Arab dominance. It was thanks to Ferdowsi that they believed the fate of Iranians did not resemble that of the Egyptians. The Persian language became the privileged site for nationalisms and anti-Arab sentiment to mine. And we must not forget that these voices were uttered at a time when Iran's Muslim neighbors were expressing their own versions of Arab and Turkish nationalism.

The rejection of Arabs and, by association, of Islam prompted an Iranian identification with Europe. Already, orientalism had marked Islam as backward, despotic, and carnal. The Persian linguistic kinship with French or English through its Indo-European past served as a bridge to the West that could save Iran's face from its Islamic taint. A movement to purge the Persian language of Arabic words produced a genre of writing in pure Persian (parsigari) that had a previous incarnation in Safavi Iran.

A genealogy can be traced from the Nuqtavis who fled to India--Azar Kayvanis--to a nascent nationalism voiced in the form of Zoroastrian revivalism and the preservation of the Persian language. Dictionaries were the most fashionable mode of this expression, compiling lexicons of Persian unfettered by Arabic. But such movements underscored Persian superiority, de-emphasizing the universalist dimension of Nuqtavi thought; two different directions in which the Bahai faith and Persian nationalism took.

Both Pahlavi monarchs, father and son, manipulated these tendencies and exaggerated the identification of Iran with its pre-Islamic past. Structurally, they de-rooted the clerical establishment, depriving it of its legal and educational functions. The clergy retreated into their mosques from which a new revolution remembering a Shi'i past would emerge.

Alongside such institutional changes that had cultural and political reverberations, Muhammad Reza Shah broke with the Islamic calendar and instead inaugurated a new era that would reckon time through solar calculations beginning with the reign of the Achaemenid monarch Cyrus. His two thousand five hundred-year commemoration of Persian monarchy at the site of Persepolis was the most extreme of the many manifestations of Pahlavi revival, and was the brainchild of another orientalist, Arthur Pope, who surveyed Iranian art and architecture. The new Western factor would complicate the complex dynamics of Iranian identity formation, whether in the territory of Iran, or among an Iranian diaspora living in the West since the Islamic Revolution.

Persian xenophobia under the Pahlavis gave voice to a variety of opposition, both secular and religious. Among the clergy, Khomeini was the most vocal. Breaking the silence of contemporary accommodating clerics, Khomeini blamed the Pahlavis for Iran's enslavement by the West. He argued for the incompatibility of monarchy and Islam, quoting Muhammad as his source. Even intellectuals like Jalal Al-i Ahmad and Ali Shariati, who had toyed with Marxism, spoke in the common language of Shi'i Islam represented by Khomeini. Each, of course, placed a different emphasis on the centrality of Shi'ism for the Iranian.

For these men voicing a spectrum of Iranian malaise, the Persian revival and its concomitant obsession with the West was deemed foreign to the Iranian populace at large. Iranians not only knew nothing of this Persian past, but a consumerism was infesting Iran that ate at the soul of every citizen; even the villager was struck by it. Al-i Ahamd located this "spiritual enslavement of Iranians to the alien God that Europe had injected into Iranian imagination" at the height of Iran's confusion. He coined a word for this disease--"gharbzadegi," Euromania--and likened it to locust in fields of wheat, who infest the wheat from within, leaving behind only skin."

Despite Al-i Ahmad's break with his own clerical heritage and his candid critique of the rigidity, hypocrisy, and superstition of clerics, his ensuing struggles to find a home for himself in Iranian political life left him with an emotional longing that was filled by those Shi'i memories and rituals that made him an Iranian--something that became clear to him during his pilgrimage to Mecca. The Iranian revolution of 1979 spoke in this very language of cultural resistance, and, as Al-i Ahmad had anticipated, it would be a revolution of the "word," for only if the word were uttered from within its religious domain (Shi'i) could it have the power to succeed.

But as the Islamic Republic came to eliminate the sun-and-lion symbol, as it attempted to eradicate Persian New Year celebrations, the discipline of Archaeology, Achaeminid and Sasani history prominent in Pahlavi textbooks, these sites are rooted in Iranian cultural imaginations. Today, they are sites of resistance both inside the boundaries of Iran and among exile Iranians in the West. Whether nostalgia or kitsch the lion-and-sun emblem on coffee mugs, the revival of Zoroastrian studies in Iran as well as among amateur scholars in exile, the Persian past is now a living and organic "millieu de memoire." The Islamic Republic appropriated these sites somewhat reluctantly as the war with Iraq necessitated a revival of nationalism. Shi'ism as a universal ideology has not freed itself of the referent that is Iran, at least in this cycle of history.

During the millennium-and-a-half history of conversion of former Sasani dominions to Islam, Mazdean and Alid idioms have been the most vocal styles of expression. Mystics, monarchs, messiahs, and, more recently, mullahs, have been endowed with the authority to privilege particular memories and historical narratives, either merging the two languages, as Shah Isma'il did, or rejecting Shi'ism, as did the Pahlavis. And we have the counterexample of Khomeini, who asserted the hegemony of Shi'ism over a Persian past. Such binary dynamics exhibit diametric responses, influencing the cyclical processes of change--moving to and from an Arab (Islamic) present to a Persian past.

What is constantly shifting is what continues to be constructed at every turn of history as "Iranian" and "Shi'i." Despite attempts from the rise of Islam up to the Islamic Revolution in Iran to reject one for the other, the duo has resisted separation. Continuities are not linear--they do not necessarily live on in their distinct domains, for in every (re)invention of "Iranian" or "Shi'i," both elements have already been merged--they have lived previous incarnations in each other's fields of representation. What is seen as Shi'i in one cycle of history is actually imagined as Iranian in another age.

Since the rise of colonialism, a third icon--the West--has joined this duo to create a triangle that marks the tensions that motivate change in Iranian society. Western democratic ideals embraced by Baha'ullah, are now the platform for reformist clerics like Khatami in Iran who emphasize the rule of law and civil society in the language of Islam. The prospect for mystics, monarchs, and messiahs seems gloomy today, but we should not forget that Baha'ullah appeared and was embraced just over a century ago. And that in the 2001 presidential elections in Iran, a young sufi from Ardabil presented himself as a candidate.

It is difficult for many of us living in this age of reason to believe in messiahs, or in reincarnation. The rationalist project of Abrahamic monotheisms has, indeed, succeeded in severing the holy from the human. Although many educated citizens of the world would ridicule ghulat beliefs, relegating them to the realm of superstition and magic, some continue to dream of justice and union with the divine in apocalyptic terms. This book offers itself as a bridge to a past to which we are now blind, a guide not only for exploring another culture, another mentality, but understanding that world on its own terms.

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Book of the day

Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs
Cultural Landscape of Early Modern Iran
By Kathryn Babayan

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