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Karachi Literature Festival: Will the real liberal please stand up?

Published: February 13, 2017

KLF serves as a hub for Pakistan’s beautiful minds that allow critical thinking and are truly progressive. PHOTO: KARACHI LITERATURE FESTIVAL.

The recently held Karachi Literature Festival 2017 was a hub alright. But a hub of what? What it stands for, ideally, is not just celebrating books and authors, but also to serve as a hub for Pakistan’s beautiful minds that allow critical thinking and are truly progressive. Literature and the arts, on such forums, are designed to allow an open inflow and outflow of thoughts and ideas, and an exchange of not just narrative but also counter narrative.

One counterfoil session of the KLF 2017 was introduced as a discussion on conflict-resolution through art and enterprise. One of Pakistan’s well known musicians dared to play a short video as a tribute to the late Pakistani pop icon-turned-evangelist Junaid Jamshed, and went on to talk about how he and Junaid, despite ideological differences, managed to remain lifelong friends, and worked in collaboration on projects pertaining to peace-building. The reaction of a renowned “liberal and progressive” scholar on the panel was perhaps not unexpected but certainly unwarranted. He ridiculed Junaid Jamshed’s long beard and dressing style, and then went on to comment on his alleged misogyny. The comments were not just out of context. They were a giveaway of something that we don’t talk about often enough, which is that when it comes to “liberalism”, Pakistanis seem to have lost the plot.

Most dictionaries define a “liberal” in words as these: Someone who is open to new behaviour or opinions and willing to discard traditional values; lacking moral restraint; tolerant to change; a moderate person or viewpoint that favours a society or social code less restrictive than the current one, and welcomes constructive change in approaches to solving economic, social, and other problems.

The irony of ironies is that the very things liberalism stands against – being judgmental, being inflexible and being rigid – are the very traps we see liberals falling into. Liberal thought is, in essence, the anti-thesis of extremism and fundamentalism. It is the willingness to burst bubbles, push boundaries, and think out of boxes. True liberalism is having the heart to listen open-mindedly to an opposing view point, even though you may disagree vehemently.

Pakistan, today, is in desperate need of truly liberal people who may have their own set of beliefs, yet are willing to hear the other side out, and engage in dialogue. The intelligentsia, as it consists of more evolved people, has on it the responsibility of building bridges. Instead, what we are seeing on both sides is deep intolerance. The religious are seen indulging in feel-good extremism, and write off those who don’t follow religion in exactly the way they interpret it. For that, they get the flack which is perhaps justified. But it is less painful because the right-wingers never really claim to be open-minded. It hits worse when those who claim to be progressive and liberal follow the same patterns. Ironically, many of them, if not all, end up being equally intolerant of dissenting viewpoints, if not more.

Puritanical thinking makes one feel holier-than-thou (and this holds true for both the left and the right, for both the religious and the secular), plugs our ears to voices of those we see as “the others”, and perpetuates a binary world view, leading to the “it is either my way or the high way” attitude.

For cases in point, one should skim through social media websites. The easiest and laziest thing to do is put blanket generalisations on groups of people – something we are becoming very good at. Common assumptions are that a bearded man or a hijabi woman cannot be a human rights activist, a peace-builder or one raising their voice against domestic violence. Equally common are counterpart assumptions that a woman donning a sleeveless shirt or a man who is in the music or showbiz industry lack in faith.

Sneering at the opposite camps might get one some additional readers and followers, or a few guffaws from a chisel-headed audience that wants to enjoy the comfort of collaborative mockery. But what many of our brightest minds end up looking like is eternal teenagers and wandering Peter Pans who imagine the world as a virtual university town where everyone must conform to thinking in a certain way.

This is not to undermine the contributions KLF and similar forums are making. It is just that by default, events that act as magnets to the urban elite seem less welcoming to those who differ socially or ideologically.

We are all living in our ideological silos, comfortable in our respective bubbles with our own sets of designated cheerleaders. No one wants to try understanding another point of view. We sing praises of a word called “empathy” when we have not even arrived at the station of “tolerance”. We spare neither the living, nor the dead. And through it all, we see ourselves as the problem-solvers when we, ourselves, are part of the problem of polarisation. How, then, can any of us claim to be liberal?

If Pakistan truly wants to get rid of extremism, there will have to be more open-minded listening, especially listening to those who are not on the same page as you, without jesting about or being dismissive of the other point of view.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz is a writer and editor, and has worked as the Features Editor with The Express Tribune. Her focus is human-centric feature stories. She now writes as a freelancer, and works in the field of corporate communications. She loves literature and traveling. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi. Her work can be seen at

How Junaid Jamshed used ‘Us Rah Par’ to foreshadow his transformation

Published: January 4, 2017
Junaid Jamshed on fusion music, Pakistan’s elite and singing naat. PHOTO: AMEER HAMZA

Junaid Jamshed on fusion music, Pakistan’s elite and singing naat. PHOTO: AMEER HAMZA

KARACHI    : For him, the song was never about a beloved. It was always about the Beloved. But he could not have said it then.

The stubble Junaid Jamshed sported in the video was perhaps one of the first times the strikingly handsome singer was seen with some form of a beard. But it was seen as part of the costume for the character of the taxi driver he played in the video, chewing on a match stick while looking intently at a female gypsy singer.



As the nation reeled from the shock of his abrupt death in the airplane crash that took away 47 lives almost a month ago, both his songs and his naat renditions started going viral on social media. It could not have been either/or. It had to be both. Some chose the former part of his singing career – mushy, poignantly phrased and softly rendered ballads and patriotic songs that helped each one of us emote at some phase of our life. Others chose his latter offerings –Islamically inspired renditions in which he sung praises of Allah and the Prophet (pbuh). Then there were those, few in number, who celebrated both phases of the icon’s life – his voice had been with them in moments of both majaazi (of the beloved) and haqeeqi (of the Beloved) Ishq.

Recap: Some of the pop icons we lost to 2016

That was Junaid – a nexus between the two extremes. The song that was shared most by his fans on both ends of the spectrum was the ballad from his solo album in 1999, Us Rah Par. This is deeply ironic; that song represents the transformational phase of this complex, layered and loved icon of Pakistan. It would be unfair to his audiences that what he revealed about this song is not shared with them.

“That song was much deeper than romantic love for me, unlike what the video portrayed,” he had said, while talking to The Express Tribune in 2013. “By 1999, the transition in me had started. Others may not know but I know that for me, that song was about my journey. But at that time, it could not have been shown.”

Against the backdrop of his statement, the lyrics begin to make more sense:

Hum kyun chalein

Uss raah par
Jis raah par
Sab hee chalein
Kyun na chunein
Woh raasta
Jis par nahin
Koi gaya….

Time was to prove that whether people agreed with his choices or not, he did go on to choose a path that few from the entertainment industry would dare to step on. “The song had been conceived metaphorically,” Junaid had shared. While the lyrics were penned by Shoaib Mansoor, Junaid’s interpretation was very different. “I confess that I had no plans of leaving music at that time. But the love of Allah had hit me. I could feel I was changing. I couldn’t run away from it.”

Thousands bid last farewell to JJ

In many interviews and talks he gave later, as part of his work as a muballigh (evangelist), he shared that despite having fame, money and popularity, something in him would not let him rest, as if something was amiss. Investing himself in a material world had begun to seem like a waste of time. “It started with me going to religious people and the mosque for my own spiritual healing. I had everything – fame, money. But something was lacking. I felt incomplete. And being in a masjid made me feel calm. Masjid still has the same effect on me. Masjid, to me, is the place where we discover humanity.”

Junaid found his direction and that led him to discover the peace in himself we all aspire for to be complete within. PHOTO: JUNAID JAMSHED FACEBOOK PAGE Junaid found his direction and that led him to discover the peace in himself we all aspire for to be complete within. PHOTO: JUNAID JAMSHED FACEBOOK PAGE

Dil udaas nazrein udaas

Dilbar nahin gar aas paas
Din raat aah bharna
Aur beqaraar rehna
Yeh khail hee bekaar hai
Kuch bhi nahin angaar hai
Is aag main jalein kyun
Pal pal jiyein marein kyun

Many temptations tugged at his heart all through his life. He never stopped loving music, but eventually he made the choice that felt right to him. “The life of this world and the Hereafter… if you please one, the other will be upset. It’s a choice you have to make,” he had said.

An enduring memory: A conversation with Junaid Jamshed

I remember asking him if he missed his past as a singer. “Naheen yaar. No withdrawal symptoms of my past life. I am not proud but happy that as a singer, I contributed to the spirit of patriotism and my country in a positive way. I lived that part of my life to the fullest. I cherish my time with the Vital Signs,” he had said, adding that he recognised that his voice was a gift from God. “Shoaib’s poetry and my voice touched people’s hearts. They could relate to it. Rohail, Shehzad, Salman, Nusrat, Rizwan, Asad Ahmed, Amir Zaki…they are much better musicians than I ever was. But somehow, I have a voice that people connect to.”

Taimur Junaid recalls the relationship he shared with his father. PHOTO: FACEBOOK @TAIMUR JUNAID

Taimur Junaid recalls the relationship he shared with his father. PHOTO: FACEBOOK @TAIMUR JUNAID

He knew he was a people’s person. “Mein awaami aadmi hoon. The work I am doing now has much more human interaction, compared to the showbiz days. Back then, the stage was in between,” Junaid had said.

Chalo ishq ka kaha maan kar

Apna sanam pehchaan kar

Kisi ese rang rang jaayein

Sab se juda nazar aayein…

Much to the frustration of his fans, who perhaps never forgave him for giving up music, Junaid went ahead and did what he had to. H,e indeed, did become coloured in a colour that made him stand out amongst all. He saw that as the colour of the Divine.

Watch the song here:

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The Junaid Jamshed not many knew

Sitting here, writing a blog that is an obituary for Junaid Jamshed. This is surreal. It is unbelievable. And is an unpleasant and painful task, but one that I must carry out as someone who knew him well. Because he would have liked me to write this. For two reasons: Firstly, Junaid, or JJ, or Jay as close friends called him, was a people’s person. He did not mind the attention. He was used to it from a very early age. I remember asking him, during one of the three interviews of his I did spanning over two decades, whether he was so used to attention as a celebrity that even when he came towards religion, he enjoyed the adulation. He laughed and did not deny it. So he would be ok with this. But secondly, and more importantly, he would appreciate that the correct, and the factual, and the good is written about him. Junaid was not as guarded with the media as I initially thought…not guarded enough. His utterances often got him into trouble – he did not weigh words as one would expect from someone who had spent most of his life under the spotlight. So he ended up saying things that ruffled so many feathers at both ends of the spectrum. More than three years ago, after I met him and Shahi Hasan at Shahi’s studio for a feature story, he had later requested me to write about the other side of him. “People just see me as the person who stops women from driving cars and wants to deny women independence. I’m not like that! And there is more to me. Can you write something positive about me?” he had said. I had told him that journalism is something I do with honesty, and I will not write positive stuff unless I find positive stuff about him worth penning. He agreed. I did end up writing some positive stuff after all. That is what I am doing once again right now. He would have wanted this.


So there is stuff about Junaid we all know but then there is stuff that we all don’t know.

Like the fact that he was big on not just charity but in particular about mother and child health, and had raised money and set up many medical care centres for maternal health. “The year was 2003. I remember reading somewhere that a woman travelling from Jhang to Faisalabad on a tonga in full-term labour died because no maternal health facility was close by. That story shook me. Pakistan’s women should not have to go through this,” he had said in that interview. During the interview, I had shared with him about the good work being done at the Koohi Goth Fistula Hospital. He started working on gathering both funds and support for the cause, and then raised enough money to support and cover the cost of some major projects the hospital needed funds for. Those getting treatment don’t even know that the person who helped give them a new lease of life is Junaid. The many unnamed individuals and families he was helping through his charity work will be hard hit at the loss.

Like the fact that he always, always struggled with his inner self after having chosen the path that he chose. I recall another pointed question I had asked, jestingly. “So the beard is your choice. But why not trim it?” “Yeh mat bolo (Don’t say that). It’s not easy,” he replied, and I felt guilty I ever asked that. An excerpt of the interview went like this:

“Sitting in Shahi Hasan’s studio, his fingers, a couple of times, delicately traced the contours of the guitar strings. But an inner commitment is stronger than the temptation. He hummed a few lines, but stopped. The darling of the Pakistani masses is no longer a balladeer. The passion has been channelised towards a higher love. His songs formerly talked about how to woo a beloved… his nasheeds and naats still do. But the Beloved has changed. JJ has evolved.”


Trying to practice religion is an uphill task. There is always discrimination, and criticism, and of course he had to bear all that. Misogynist. Chauvinist. Mullah. The titles were many. So were the attacks on his selfies with female friends. Ironically, these were often hurled by the very people who supposedly believe that one should live and let live. The very people who will forever rely on his songs when they feel patriotic or heart-broken or in love or happy or sad.

For me, his voice has been with me through me own transitions. From a music buff to one who developed the heart and the taste for the naat and nasheed genre, his voice was a part and parcel of the journey. Even at the age of 52, his voice sounded young and untainted.

Junaid, like all of us, had his shortcomings. I strongly disagreed with so many of his stances, and agreed with others, like many of us. But he was a good soul, a loving son, husband and father. He made efforts to help others. He did help thousands, both through his charity and through his role in reviving the faith of so many. Like all of us, he may have fallen and gotten up many times on the path he chose. But he chose to stay on that path anyways. Not many take that path after a taste of such fame and adulation. Reminds one of his song:

Hum kyun chalain uss raah par jis raah par sub hee chalain

Kyun na chunain who raasta jis par naheen koi gaya…

He is just one story and this is just one obituary out of the 47 who lost their lives today. Each story unique. Each life unparalleled. Lives full of promise. Lives cut short.

Life is short. And unpredictable. If we take home one thing from Junaid’s passing, which I pray will be accepted by Allah as shahadat (martyrdom), it is to stop judging others.

Rest in peace JJ. And thank you for all the goodness you spread and the service you offered to humanity. May you be rewarded multi-fold in the Hereafter.

Published also at

Naya Pakistan: Revitalised


By Farahnaz Zahidi
Published: March 8, 2013

Years have passed since their iconic debut album rocked staid and straight-laced Pakistan. Now the Vital Signs are back with an offering for our times.

On the 14th of August 1987, from among a people exhausted by an oppressive and stifling dictatorship, rose four young men with one simple song that revitalised the dwindling hopes of a nation. Hailed as the ‘second national anthem’, Dil Dil Pakistan (DDP) gave the nation a new lease of life. While it was that very dictatorship that gave DDP unprecedented airtime, a year later the long-awaited spring of democracy followed. Pakistan’s vital signs were stabilised. Or so it seemed.

Twenty-five years later, those vital signs have virtually flat-lined. Democratically ruled yet lacking peace, security and justice, the nation has been pushed well past the brink of despair.

At this juncture, when we collectively stare into the abyss, Naya Pakistan, it seems, was destined to happen. It began as a casual reunion of old friends at Shahi Hasan’s studio, a bit of jamming over Salman Ahmed’s idea for this song, a common cause, a shared vision, and voila! The four prodigal members of the legendary pop musical band Vital Signs decided some Vital Junoon was required to give the nation hope through the medium they knew best — music. Thus was born Naya Pakistan — Inshallah.

Within 2 hours of its release on February 2013, it had clocked sixty thousand unique hit on the music sharing website Soundcloud. In twenty-four hours it had been googled 2.5 million times, with thousands sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. Despite having no Bollywood movie, TV channel or corporate sponsorship to support it, Naya Pakistan went viral in the true sense of the word.

Enthusiastic fans may call it the new national anthem, but Naya Pakistan is no Pak Sar Zameen, and it’s no DDP either. The latter is almost a part of Pakistani folklore, a timeless message to be handed down generation after generation.

Naya Pakistan is a metaphor for unity. In this polarised country, acceptance and tolerance for viewpoints other than one’s own is rare. At this point, these men have, while respecting each other’s values but maintaining their own, become part of a joint venture for a common cause. If they could peacefully set aside their ideological differences and work around them to unite for a common cause, why can’t the nation do the same? This underlying message is more powerful and important than the medium used to convey it.

The four men are no longer the young and the restless. Much has happened and much has changed. They have evolved. Their once youthful faces are now marked by laugh lines and crow’s feet. Their impulsiveness has been replaced by thoughtfulness. They have come of age.

But a few things have, luckily, remained the same. Like their idealism. Like their hope for better days for Pakistan. Like their sincerity and candidness.

Most importantly, their bond of friendship has not changed. As they sit together and share jokes about the days gone by, it’s clear that they are not mere celebrities or former band mates, but friends.

Here they talk about then and now, about the purana and naya Pakistan. And how they still believe that Aitebaar bhi aa hi jayega, chalo to sahee.

Salman Ahmed : In First Person


Photo: Chris Ramirez

“It was the spring of 1988. I was a medical student whose only dream was playing cricket for Pakistan. Our cricket team’s success was the only happiness I felt during General Zia’s oppressive military dictatorship. People back then mainly listened to pirated western songs or Bollywood music, and thought Pakistani music was uncool. I was made fun of for following my junoon of music and giving up a serious and noble profession like medicine.

Then Dil Dil happened. The success of Vital Signs coincided with a spectacular cultural and political revolution in the country. Democracy returned as a young 35 year old woman, Benazir Bhutto, became prime minister while Dil Dil Pakistan became the soundtrack to change.

If I compare Pakistan yesterday and today, this is what I see: The Pakistan of today has a robust, noisy press and a vibrant social media; back then, we only had a bureaucratic PTV and Radio Pakistan. Today, we have an Oscar winning woman; back then our women only dreamt of winning. Back then we had a corrupt, incompetent dictatorship, while today we have a corrupt, incompetent democracy. Back then, Nawaz Sharif was a chief minister who aspired to become a cricketer. Today a cricketer, Imran Khan, has the chance of becoming a prime minister. The Pakistan of today is attacked by killer US drones and dengue fever; back then there were Soviet Kalashnikovs & Vital-mania.

A lot has happened since then. My wife Samina and I are building model villages in Pakistan. I’ve been a UN goodwill ambassador for 10 years. I have had the good fortune to have recorded with international artists such as Peter Gabriel and Melissa Etheridge and have performed at the Nobel peace prize ceremony. I am also a music professor at Queens College in NY.

The world has not been able to rob me of my idealism. I am motivated to help bring change to Pakistan in the fields of culture, education, health and diplomacy. Pakistan’s wealth is its youth and women. I have had the support of three very strong women in my life: my grandmother Aziza, my mother Shahine and my wife Samina.

It is an amazing feeling recording this song with my four friends, almost as if the Divine power of “Kun Fa Ya Kun” brought us together. God is Great. He has shown me that no amount of money, fame or power can equal the blessing of having great friends.

It’s always darkest just before dawn. Hope is a game changer and this song provides hope for a revolutionary change. The new generation is starving for peace, love and happiness. I have deep faith that with sincere, honest leadership, Pakistan will develop into a first world nation in my life time and our children will see a Naya Pakistan, Inshallah!”

Junaid Jamshed : The more things change


Photo: Aania Shah

A conversation with Junaid Jamshed may be many things, but it’s never boring. The formerVital Signs frontman remains a charmer despite the obvious changes he has gone through. JJ, as he is popularly known, is easy to talk to and seems to be at peace despite an inner struggle.

Yet, beneath the casual demeanour, Junaid is guarded around the media. Hawk-like, we wait for him to slip or err, and scrutinize everything right from his family life and business to his inner dilemmas. Of all the former band mates his transformation has been the most sweeping, and the one most people still can’t seem to come to grips with. “He was ours! Such a good-looking man! Such a soulful voice! Why can’t he be the person he was?” This is a common refrain from many of his long-time fans, but Junaid feels he is still the same person, as are Shahi, Salman or Nusrat. But he admits his focus and lifestyle have changed. “Meri zindigi abb woh naheen rahi,” he says.

While he is a part of this venture, he just sung a couple of lines at the beginning of the song without any musical accompaniments. That’s a point he would not compromise on, and made his feeling clear politely but firmly. As Salman said in a recent interview, “Junaid did not break his vow [to not get back into music]”. Yet, as critics of the song also agree, his vocals set the pace and are, perhaps, the best part of Naya Pakistan, in addition to Salman’s electrifying guitar solo.

“Why do I get the feeling that people want me to start singing again?” is Junaid’s question, one that has an obvious answer. However, his decision of renouncing music is almost a decade old and still remains strong.

He chuckles with Shahi the way only old friends can, and Junaid, in that moment, seems to have turned the clock back two decades. “We were all yaars. We still are”

“Junaid is the most level headed out of all of us,” says Shahi. But Junaid interjects, saying, “Shahi is the coolest. He’s the anchor of the band. I am not as moody but I am impulsive.”

He goes on to say, “I miss the thumbs up from Rohail and Shahi when I record now. I crave their feedback. We were friends first and band mates later. That’s why, even when we stopped making music together, the friendship never ended.” He expresses his wish that Rohail could have been part of the project too. He and Shahi both confirm that this song was an unplanned venture, and Coke Studio keeps Rohail very busy.

When it comes to Pakistan, his optimism is tempered by realism. “Things will get better for Pakistan. But if each one us doesn’t do our bit, it’s not just the country that will suffer … the ‘I’, the individual, will suffer. We have to go beyond the psyche of selfishness and narcissism and must think of collective benefit. We have gotten so much from this country. It is time to give back.”

Shahzad Hasan : People use Inshallah for all the wrong purposes. This song uses it for the right ones.


Photo: Aania Shah

The startling green eyes, the signature cap perched on his head, the soft voice. Shahzad Hasan aka Shahi takes time to warm up. But once he does, he talks passionately, and makes perfect sense.

“We didn’t do this song for personal fame. We did this because as educated Pakistanis it’s our responsibility to spread positivity,” he says. “My, Rohail and Junaid’s fathers are from the armed forces. Love for this country is instilled in us. My father fought two wars and was injured in them. But it’s sad that as a nation, we no longer feel that Pakistanis are a family and there is a sense of disconnect. We do not know our own neighbours. It’s time to stop criticising each other. Each Pakistani is part of a larger machine … each one of us is important.”

Shahi always stays in the background. “Because I love what I do. Junaid was always the front man. And I loved his being the front man because he was best suited for it. There was no jealousy because when you love somebody, you are only happy when that person is in the front,” says the diehard friend.

”We, the Vital Signs, never wanted to be in the limelight without each other. I think Allah gave us that success because we were not selfish,” says Shahi and goes on to praise Junaid in that same unselfish spirit. “They say a singer is at his best as he ages. Junaid’s voice has a lot more body now. He sang in an era when voices could not be technically altered in a studio, and he was still very good,” comments Shahi.

A patriot to the core, Shahi feels that, “Pakistan ka wohi ho ga jo hum is ka karain gay. It’s time to give back to the country. This country has given me an identity. Sadly, an entire generation of children growing up in affluent backgrounds and elite schools are growing up with an inferiority complex, thinking that our country is less than others. The country is a mess? Clean it up!”

Nusrat Hussain : Flight to a better Pakistan


Photo: Aania Shah

For high-flying Nusrat Hussain, music isn’t just a medium, it’s a lifelong passion. “Music is not a passing phase for me. I can never be detached from it.”

This airline pilot has to juggle his two loves: music and flying, while also working on his second album. His first album, ‘Amrit’, was released in early 1990s.

“I have been working on my album ‘Kaho’ all this time. I had gone to Shahi to get some final work done on it, and ended up doing Naya Pakistan!” says Nusrat who has worked as a pilot for more than 20 years and is currently based in the Middle East.

“It felt as if we were never away for this long after all; such has been our bond that it felt like coming home,” he says.

An idealist like his friends, Nusrat echoes Salman’s sentiments as he compares the Pakistan of yesterday and today: “Pakistan was under a morbid dictatorship with little freedom of expression. Now we are free but facing a multitude of other problems like terrorism, corruption, sectarianism, the energy crisis, and inflation,” he says. “And last but not the least, brain drain,” he adds, commenting on the ongoing exodus that is the direct result of the chaos prevailing in Pakistan.

“I have always been politically aware and had the desire to bring about a change in society through my music,” says the ex-Vital Signs key board player-cum-guitarist-cum vocalist.

“I dream of a better world … a better Pakistan. Sadly, at times, like everyone else, I feel I am losing hope. With time, I have grown more practical and pragmatic, but the response that this song has generated shows how desperately we need a change in Pakistan,”  ” But that has not taken away his desire to give back to Pakistan. “I am even more geared up to do something for my country.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 10th, 2013.

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