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Martyrs' Crossing

A Novel

About The Book

From the author of the prize-winning The Rainy Season—a “sophisticated and suspenseful” (The New York Times Book Review) novel of love, fear, divided loyalties, ruined friendships, and personal sacrifice—against a backdrop of war in the Holy Land.

One rainy night at a Jerusalem checkpoint, Israeli Lieutenant Ari Doron is ordered to refuse passage to a young Palestinian mother and her sick boy. The incident leads to a series of riots, and Doron finds himself pulled into the bitter political aftermath as battles and bus bombs explode around him.

He is drawn to Marina, the boy’s mother. And though she is on the other side of the bloody struggle, she finds herself thinking of Doron as “her soldier.” In another place, at another time, they might have been lovers, but here their story moves toward a tragic conclusion with the kind of inevitability that war imposes.

Marina’s father, an eminent Boston heart specialist and an outspoken Palestinian intellectual, is also sucked into the conflict he thought he had left behind long ago. Now, back in the streets of his youth, he must choose whether to support his old comrades as they manipulate his grandson’s story in an ugly propaganda campaign, or break with them and wreck his last remaining childhood friendship. Caught in history’s terrible catastrophe, all three become pawns for larger, inescapable forces.

Martyrs’ Crossing “is a very human tale of regrets, revenge, and the elusive nature of absolution” (Entertainment Weekly). “So precise, so startling, so unforgettable” (Los Angeles Times), it offers an unparalleled story of the ambiguities of war—of inarticulate longing and broken vows—set in the turbulence of Israel and the West Bank.


Martyrs’ Crossing

SHE WANTED TO BE LIFTED away from here by angels, plucked up into the empty sky. Failing angels, she would accept any transportation—no matter how mean, no matter how low. The crowd was squeezing the breath out of her, and Ibrahim’s hand kept almost slipping away. Marina picked him up so that she wouldn’t lose hold of him. He turned and twisted irritably in her arms. There was too much old sweat here, there were too many bodies close to hers, and the whole thing made her feel like retching, like running. Too many people were breathing down her neck, and whose breath was it? No one who knew her, no one she wanted to know. Strangers, foreigners, was how she thought of them, really, even though they were her own people, standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament. She had always thought she wanted to.

They were all treading dust out here on the Ramallah road under the blue winter sky, and Ibrahim was inhaling it, too, like fire. It was scratchy air. He coughed and coughed again, and squirmed in her arms, trying to see what was happening. He was pale and feverish, but there was strength in those little legs. Marina looked down at his flushed cheeks. She looked through the dust up at the sky and saw a string of faded plastic flags fluttering over the road, crisscrossing it. There was a picture of the Chairman on one side of each flag, and on the reverse, a picture of a jowly commando who had been assassinated more than ten years earlier.

She felt an elbow grind into her side. No one liked to be this close to his fellow man—she could say that with certainty. A car alarm yowled. The crowd was approaching the yellow sign: PREPARE YOUR DOCUMENTS FOR INSPECTION. The sky overhead was clear, but there was a threat in the clouds piling up far out to the west over the distant sea. The wind whipped through the cypresses that scrabbled up a hill behind the low stores and houses. Straining toward the rickety watchtower that overlooked Shuhada checkpoint, the faces of the crowd, upturned and expectant, were like faces in religious paintings, the faces of believers waiting for a miracle. Just let me through, Marina thought. A man next to her coughed in Ibrahim’s face.

Next time, get him out of there and over to us as fast as you can, Dr. Miller had said. He needs to be on the machines. He needs drips you can’t always get at your hospitals. He needs our nebulizers.

She held Ibrahim tightly with one arm, and pushed his hair back from his eyes. He felt hot and he looked frightened, and this was a boy who did not scare easily. Not even when they went to visit Hassan in the prison on the other side. In order to see Daddy, they had to get through the checkpoint, find a taxi, drive into Jerusalem—and then, at the prison, pass through a reinforced steel door while men with big guns watched them and asked questions.

Marina was used to the rituals of crossing over. But today was different. The press of bodies made her feel faint. In the months since Hassan was arrested, she and Ibrahim had become accustomed to lining up. It was more or less civilized. With the right papers you almost always got through—if you had the patience. Sometimes the soldiers didn’t check at all; they were naturally unsuspicious and lenient with mothers and children. But if they did run her through the computer, she was ready with her passport and with Ibrahim’s medical file from Hadassah Hospital. There would be a few questions about Hassan, because prisoners always turned up on the computer. But then, right through. Marina looked like what she was, a Palestinian, but she was an American citizen, born in Boston, with what had always been a foolproof passport.

But nothing works forever, especially here. Early this morning, there had been two bus bombs in downtown Jerusalem. Bodies had been blown all over a square. These were the first attacks in a long time, and now the checkpoint was like a place she’d never visited before. Marina had never seen a complete closure before, a towq, it was called in Arabic. They hadn’t done one in years, and she’d never believed they could do it, not really.

Could they? No one knew, not even her doctor in Ramallah. She had run to him this afternoon, when Ibrahim seemed to be getting sicker. The medications he had been expecting for more than a week had been delayed again. Get yourself into Jerusalem, the doctor told her. With your passport, it should be all right.

Turning away from his office door, Marina flagged a cab and headed for the checkpoint. Traffic to the crossing had slowed to a stop a half mile from the Jerusalem line. She got out to finish the trip on foot.

• • •

FACING THE CROWD, in the shadow of the watchtower, Lieutenant Ari Doron flicked away his cigarette and tried to decide on a few next steps. In the old days, he might have panicked. But he was a harder man now, he didn’t wilt when confronted. That’s why his superiors used him for checkpoint duty when the situation got bad. And today it certainly was dangerous. The crowd had grown larger as more and more were refused permission to cross. It was hot out for this time of year, and Doron felt damp beneath his heavy bulletproof vest. He pushed his hair up under his cap and drank some tepid water out of a plastic bottle that was standing on one of the sand-filled, plastic roadblocks the army had set up at the intersection three years ago, as a temporary measure. By now, the checkpoint had become a permanent part of Jerusalem’s geography. Since the peace was declared, Doron thought. He tried to brush some of the dust off his shoulders.

Today’s disturbance was going down like clockwork, each notch up in the violence coming according to schedule. It was like a drill for the checkpoint soldiers, the angry crowds of rock-throwing young men. Doron was used to it. It started with children, the little boys who slipped through legs and whipped around the crowd and were having the best time, you could see it. It was only a matter of minutes before the young men joined in. They used slingshots, which Doron considered fair practice in the land of David. He wondered whether these were the kind David had used to kill the giant. The contraption looked like a holiday noisemaker, and the Palestinians spun it from the hip so that if you were up close, which you tried not to be, you could hear it whipping the air. The slingshot could send a rock flying at what seemed like the speed of a bullet.

Usually, the soldiers waited until a rock hit its mark, until there were enough men throwing stones, so that they weren’t firing into a gaggle of schoolboys. First they shot into the air. Rubber bullets. Then they tried tear gas. When the tear gas didn’t work, the soldiers would shoot in the air again, which also never worked, and then they’d begin shooting in earnest, over the heads of the crowd if their aim was good, into the crowd if it wasn’t. By then, the men would be angry and nervous and ready to shoot for real, but Doron always tried to avoid this stage. He had never used live ammo at a checkpoint, and could not imagine the situation in which he would give that order. Rubber bullets were bad enough. Or there were sound bombs, a kind of grenade that did not explode but could generally be counted on to send a mob hurtling away. Doron also tended to go extra heavy on the tear gas. He didn’t want casualties on his record. Things could escalate quickly into something really bad, something he didn’t want to see, didn’t want to deal with, didn’t want to be responsible for.

Doron had seen the crisis building today as the politicians pulled the closure tighter and tighter. The Palestinians here at the checkpoint were trying to get into Israel for all the usual reasons: work, work, and work. There had been closures before, as punishment for acts of terror, and yet they would still come, desperate to get through, and every day, some of them made it, because usually the closure was not airtight, and there was room for lackadaisical enforcement, there was room for leniency—even sympathy, on occasion.

Like most of the officers in charge of the checkpoints today, Doron had asked headquarters to loosen up—he could feel the place turning into a flashpoint as the pressure built. But Tel Aviv kept tugging on the drawstrings. Responding to terror, the government said, the two bus bombings all over the television, the two suicide boys, dressed up like Israeli soldiers, who packed their kit bags with explosives and got on the buses and blew themselves up. Whose brothers or cousins might explode tomorrow at the mall, the movies, the grocery store. Fifty killed and scores wounded, in two minutes. So. No passage between the West Bank and Israel. No movement among the towns and villages of the West Bank. Even the most urgent cases would be judged harshly today.

The stone throwers were close. Doron called in to headquarters. There was trouble at several of the other crossings. It sounded chaotic over the phone line. He heard other phones ringing and the sound of someone cursing loudly. He hung up and had his men advance a few more meters in front of the watchtower, hoping they would look tough and determined, even though right now he had only seven men on shift, if you didn’t count the other two he had diverted to watch the dry, deserted wadi a hundred meters away. Sometimes enterprising Palestinians would walk or drive around the checkpoint through the dry riverbed behind it. The Israelis knew about these violators, but usually ignored them. Today, the wadi was off-limits. Nine men total, a reasonable number. The checkpoints were not supposed to be war zones.

Zvili came up to him. It amazed him that checkpoint duty always meant working with guys like Zvili.

“They’re closing in,” Zvili said. He sounded excited.

“They are far away,” Doron said.

“We might have to begin firing,” Zvili said. He knew that Doron shied away from this.

“I don’t think so, not yet.” Doron looked at Zvili. The little man had a hard look on his face, like a gargoyle. These little guys shocked Doron with their toughness. They were ready for anything. Unlike Doron.

“Well, what do you suggest?” Zvili asked him.

“Nothing,” Doron said. “Nothing yet.”

“So we’re just going to sit here like target practice?” Zvili spat on the ground. He was a gremlin, but he was scared. Doron could see it in his posturing.

“No, we’re just going to sit here like grown-ups until we see what’s developing,” Doron said to him. His tone was condescending, the vocal equivalent of patting Zvili on the head. “For all we know, this is business as usual, but a little more intense. Anyway, they’re still too far away to hurt us.”

Doron prided himself on his new maturity. He was an old hand, temperate and calm, having found himself—sometime after his twenty-eighth birthday—suddenly quite able to distinguish between a problem and a crisis. Was it a run-of-the-mill melee, or “a situation”? Making that judgment was the essence of Israeli military professionalism. Doron checked the time and calculated how long it would be until nightfall. Even the most violent crowds tended to disperse at sunset. It was a matter of keeping the boys at bay until the earth’s rotation came into line with your military strategy. It would be almost an hour, not soon enough. He noticed the dust rising. It made his eyes itch. He sniffed at the air. He listened. A car alarm was going off. From this distance, about a hundred meters, he could only make out beetled brows, and kerchiefs around noses and mouths. It always looked in photographs as if they were seeking anonymity, but in fact it was protection against the gas. The gas slowed them down—it prolonged the time between the hurling of the rock that smashed a soldier’s cheek, and the shooting that would repel the stone throwers. That was the only use for the gas, as far as Doron could see. It never really put an end to things.

He nodded to Zvili, and Zvili prepared a tear-gas cartridge. The young men were moving in closer, their pitching arms back. Doron nodded again.

Zvili fired off the cartridge. It soared up into the air and then plummeted down like the tail end of a firework, exploding on descent. The crowd opened up around it. Breaking through the ring of those who were fleeing, a young man with a kerchief around his face ran up to the spewing cartridge, picked it up, and galloped toward the checkpoint like a strange tribal smoke-dancer, stopping finally a few meters from Doron’s line of defense to hurl the cartridge back at the Israelis. Doron coughed and bent over, and tears bit at his eyes. He felt for a second as if he were going to black out, the stuff was so fucking strong. Should have shot him, he thought. When Doron stood finally after the cramp in his lungs had abated, he saw the boy scampering back into a rejoicing crowd.

Doron wished these battles did not have to be so intimate. He coughed into the back of his hand. There was something too much like children’s games about being at such close quarters with the enemy. It was like hide-and-seek, or a color war. They ran up to you, you chased them back. They conked your guy, you conked theirs. You got to know each other by the end of a day. You could take the measure of certain individuals. He hated seeing their joy at a wounded soldier, and wished he could take the same raw pleasure in their injuries. He wanted to want them dead. But God, he just wished that these people had stayed home today. He wished that they would stay home every day.

• • •

“HOLD ON, hold on, hold on here,” a voice shouted through the crowd. No one could see who was talking. An old man’s walking stick thudded against Marina. People jostled her from both sides, stepped-on toes crunching like pebbles underfoot. The car alarm was still wailing. The crowd lurched forward; someone was pushing from behind. Marina felt one of her shoes come loose, and then it was gone.

The crowd stumbled backward a few paces as the soldiers advanced toward them. Gunfire popped. For a moment, everyone stood still. I have to get out of here, Marina thought. But she couldn’t afford to leave. She had to get to the checkpoint, and through it, now. So this was total closure, she thought, an occasion for riot, a mini uprising. And then there were the people, like her, who really needed to get across. Four years in this place, and she still had learned nothing.

A slight breeze blew a cloud of gas over them. Marina put her shirt over Ibrahim’s face. He was gasping. Tears were coursing down her own face, too, from the gas. She stood up against the side of a photocopy store, panting. The crowd was running away from the checkpoint, now, but young men still stood around, in corners, behind walls, down alleys, waiting for the next assault.

A man standing next to her offered his handkerchief. He pulled a small plastic bottle of scented toilet water from his bag and poured it over the white square.

“Here,” he said.

She took it gratefully and put it over the boy’s nose and mouth. The man smiled briefly, and then looked back out at the wildly scattering crowd. He was thin, and his suit was shabby in the local style: a little too long in the cuffs, worn at the elbows, cut too sharply, glossy at the collar, the lapels too broad. A West Bank professional of some kind, Marina guessed. An accountant, or a dentist.

She thanked the man over and over for his kindness.

“It is nothing,” he said. “You keep that.” He turned away.

Marina closed her eyes. A vision of the Star Market on Mass Ave in Cambridge came abruptly into her head. The piled-up apples. Pyramids of boxes containing macaroni and cheese mix. The wide corridor of frozen foods. The soups with the soups, the dog bones with the dog bones, bags with bags, meat with meat. The spray that rained down on the vegetables every ten minutes like a passing sun shower. The quick click of the cashiers. In every way, life was orderly there.

Marina wanted life to be normal, whatever that was. She wanted to be at home with her baby. She wanted to feel his head and call Dr. Miller’s office and have them say, Yes, come in, and then get in a car and drive him over, like a normal person. And have them say, He’s fine, don’t worry, calm down, everything is going to be fine. Ibrahim had a very bad cold, you’d think it was nothing. But the last time he’d had a cold with a fever, he’d begun to come up short for breath, and then he wasn’t breathing right at all, and she ended up rushing him through the checkpoint to Jerusalem, to Hadassah, and Dr. Miller had hurried over to see him. Ibrahim lay in a hospital bed, with his blue eyes looking up over the green plastic nebulizer mask, a drip in his arm, and she had felt like collapsing, but at least Dr. Miller had been there, saying he’s going to be fine.

That was last month and all the days before. But now something—many things—had changed. You couldn’t even get near the checkpoint because of the demonstrators and the crowd. She thought of her father, who had left Ramallah last week, and the small crowd of admirers who had stood on her doorstep, waving goodbye at his disappearing taxi. He was heading back to America. Marina felt a pang of nostalgia for the Boston winters of her childhood, for snowboots and slush. She imagined her father in snowy Cambridge now, sitting comfortably with his reading glasses down near the tip of his nose or lounging in front of the television watching tennis. He would never get caught in a situation like this. During his visits, her father, with all of his ties to the Authority, managed swift and unlimited checkpoint crossings for himself—whenever he wished, which was not very often—each one planned carefully in advance, each strategically fixed: the right car one day, VIP documents the next, a connected driver, whatever it took. But today, Marina had been caught by surprise. No time for arrangements. Ibrahim’s breath came in gasps. She watched the crowd rush by. Rabble, that would be the word that would rise to her father’s lips, even though he’d never say it.

• • •

IT WAS GETTING DARKER. That was help from on high, thought Doron. The clouds might bring darkness earlier than expected. He hoped so, he hoped so. One of Doron’s men had been hit. It wasn’t serious but blood was flowing down into his eyes, which did not exactly raise morale. Doron looked up at the sky. If only God would send a message down the way he used to, publicly and unmistakably. Instead, rain clouds, gunfire, boys with stones, dust.

Doron watched the kerchiefed boys preparing another onslaught. He knew that what was unhappily called a situation had developed on his watch. Behind the boys, the crowd was moving toward the checkpoint again. Doron thought about percussion grenades, good for stopping animal stampedes—or starting them—and for stopping running crowds in their tracks without causing casualties. Certainly no matter what he ended up doing, it would be found that he had done something wrong, had forgotten to do something, had neglected something that right now, right now, should seem utterly obvious to him as a course of action. He was sure that firing on the crowd at this point would be a mistake. On the other hand, he didn’t want to be a sitting duck for some kind of unprecedented attack on the checkpoint.

“Let’s launch a sound bomb,” Doron said. It was getting too close, they were getting too cocky. It had to end. There was a moment past which you could not let things continue, or the escalation might prove unstoppable. Doron stood out in front of his men while they prepared the percussion weapon. Rocks were coming at him from three sides. It was raining rocks. Doron felt an urgent need to reassert control. He knew he could do it. It was going to happen now. We can always win, he thought. He reminded himself: The one who gains victory in close quarters is the one with superior firepower—and the will to use it. That last bit had always been Doron’s problem.

• • •

A SHATTERING NOISE shook the ground. They are bombing us, Marina thought. That’s impossible. She had never heard of bombs, not at the checkpoints. This one was so loud the shock seemed to continue in waves under her feet like an earthquake. She trembled and thought about natural disasters. She didn’t see anyone lying bloody and wounded, the way they would after a bombing. No buildings collapsed.

Another tremor rattled the ground. Maybe they’re trying to end it, Marina thought. The windows of the businesses along the street rattled and one or two shattered as another blast shook the street. She closed her eyes tight and prayed that they would get across. She tried to make her way to the checkpoint, but the crowd kept pushing her back.

• • •

DORON WATCHED the crowd flee from the waves of the explosion. The blast rippled under his feet and he thought it would toss him into the air. The crowd felt the same thing: it was like an earthquake. He gave a signal to launch another bomb. One or two more, and they’d be so far gone they would never regroup. Doron wished fervently never to see another Palestinian. Dream on, he said to himself, tapping his foot, waiting for the end, his gun at the ready.

In a few minutes, he knew it was over. No shouting, no tramping, no stones. Not a single one.

“Hooray,” he heard Zvili say to another man.

Hooray is right, Doron thought. It was over for today. As usual, the sound grenades had worked, combined with a massive dose of tear gas and a few strategic bursts of shots fired into the air. At least there would be an interlude of calm until tomorrow, although it would be an interlude filled with stretchers on the Palestinian side, and exhausted, bleeding soldiers at the checkpoint. His men were gathering around the watchtower. Now was the time to deal with the aftermath. Normally, the men would all be smoking after such an afternoon, but they were coughing too hard. Dust caked over the bloody face of the man who’d been hit, a private, first time on the checkpoint. He was looking for water and a towel. Doron handed him his water bottle as he passed by. A light injury—but he’d send the man to get stitched up, anyway.

Doron could see several yards of road now, a stretch of beautiful, radiant, black macadam, with no one standing on it. The roadbed. Amazing. He looked at the few yards of blackness as if it were an old buddy returning from war. He wanted to kiss it, slap it on the back, offer it a beer. The road was decorated with dust, dirt, sand, rubble, and stray sandals and shoes lost in the melee.

Not everyone left, of course. There were always a few troublemakers, and some people who, Doron supposed, were desperate to get across. But wouldn’t. Zvili appeared at his side and handed him a cigarette. Doron took it and looked at Zvili with a pained smile on his face.

“Good work, Lieutenant,” Zvili said.

“Thank God it’s over,” said Doron. They went into the trailer.

It was growing dark fast. Zvili flicked on the fluorescent bulb with an elbow. Two of the men who had been out front had returned to the trailer. One parked himself at the desk near the radio with his feet up, and the other sat backward on a metal folding chair, reading the log sheet. The bleeding soldier stood against the wall in a dark corner, with a bloody piece of someone’s old shirt balled in his hand and blood still trickling into his eye and down his face. He shook his head as Doron examined him.

“You’ve got to have someone see that,” Doron said. Doron took the bloody rag and made some swipes at the private’s face.

“I’m fine,” said the man.

“Don’t be brave,” said Doron.

Zvili polished his sunglasses on the edges of his flak jacket. He returned them to their case.

“Everything cool?” asked Zvili, looking out. This was code.

“Yes,” said Doron. “No one dead, as far as I can tell.” They watched as an injured man on a stretcher was carried away in the direction of Ramallah. It was always possible that a couple of Palestinians would turn up dead after the riots finished; people you hadn’t noticed go down.

“So what else?” Zvili asked. “What are we going to do with these folks?” He gestured to the stragglers coming up the road. “Look at that guy,” he said, pointing at a man in a suit, standing near the bench outside. “Why the fuck does he need to get across, I’d like to know. I mean really.”

“Don’t worry,” said Doron. “He’s not going anywhere. One guy came through this morning. Authority. Special plates and a special paper just for today. That’s been it. Orders are no exceptions. Headquarters is scared shitless. They don’t want anyone sneaking through. They’ve even closed off the wadi.”

“Yeah,” said Zvili. “Makes me want to cry.”

Sometimes, Doron wished there was something really bad he could do to Zvili, instead of fucking over all these pointless Palestinians. Still, the world would be a better place with no Palestinians in it, he often thought. And Zvili was his comrade, supposedly. He had worked with him before at this checkpoint. He had even had a beer at Zvili’s house after a hard day. Once. He tried not to dislike Zvili, but Zvili didn’t make it easy. Doron turned to the guardroom.

“Be down in a minute,” he said. He walked out and climbed slowly up the metal staircase to the watchtower. He liked to survey things at sundown—this was his personal minaret. The man on watch edged aside, and Doron peered down. Things seemed normal. It looked like every night along this road. It was colder, darker, too, without the headlights from the usual traffic that was deterred tonight. Cypresses rose like the shadows of flames from the crest of the hill running behind the wadi. The rain would start soon.

• • •

DOWN ON THE road, everyone headed home, shocked by the sound bombs and undone by the growing dark and the storm that was descending. But Marina could not go home. Ibrahim’s eyes were closed. He wheezed loudly at the end of each short breath. The crowd was breaking up, each person an individual again, with his own plans for the night. The man stationed up in the watchtower leaned on the window ledge with a bored look on his face, pointing his machine gun down at a straggling line of people who were making their way toward the checkpoint in the near dark.

Marina started to run down the road toward the watchtower, with one shoe gone and Ibrahim panting in her arms. At least now there was space to run. At the guardroom, she would plead her case. Those Israeli soldiers who looked at you as if you weren’t the same species. She knew them. Their impassive faces, deathly indifference, like Roman praetorians. She’d have to beg, plead, get down on her knees. She hated having to do it; she liked looking away as she presented her documents, getting through, no arguments, no contact, no humiliation. Nothing personal. She had always sworn that if it came to total closure, she would never beg, never degrade herself that way. She’d happily stay in Ramallah, except for her visits to Hassan. What, after all, did Jerusalem have that Ramallah didn’t? But that was before Ibrahim got sick again. She knew the answer to her old question, now: Jerusalem had Hadassah Hospital.

• • •

DORON BREATHED IN the wet, fresh air. After a hot dusty day, you almost felt clean, up here in the watchtower. He leaned out the opening and looked down at the stragglers waiting outside the guardroom. The sole bench in front, which seated six or seven, was full. In spite of the rain clouds that were building toward blackness above them, a few small groups huddled in conversation near the bench. And heading down toward the checkpoint trailer across the road, coming at a run, almost, but graceful and dignified, was a slender woman in blue jeans, with long, uncovered hair, a beautiful woman, really, Doron could see, carrying a child. One of her shoes was missing.

About The Author

Photo Credit: Paula Goldman

Amy Wilentz is the author of The Rainy Season, Martyrs’ Crossing, and I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen. She has won the Whiting Writers Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Non-Fiction Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award. She writes for The New Yorker and The Nation and teaches in the Literary Journalism program at UC Irvine.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 29, 2016)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501136849

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