Prisoner of Tehran

A Memoir

by Marina Nemat

Prisoner of Tehran

Hardcover, 306 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Book Summary

Nemat tells the heart-pounding story of her life as a young girl in Iran during the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini's brutal Islamic Revolution—arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death for "political crimes."—From publisher description.

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Excerpt: Prisoner Of Tehran

Prisoner of Tehran

Two

I was arrested on January 15, 1982, at about nine o'clock at night. I was sixteen.

Earlier that day, I woke before dawn and couldn't go back to sleep. My bedroom felt darker and colder than usual, so I stayed under my camel-wool duvet and waited for the sun, but it seemed like darkness was there to stay. On cold days like this, I wished our apartment had better heating; two kerosene heaters weren't enough, but my parents always told me I was the only one who found the house too chilly in winter.

My parents' bedroom was next to mine, and the kitchen was across the narrow hallway that connected the two ends of our three-bedroom apartment. I listened as my father got ready for work. Although he moved lightly and quietly, the faint sounds he made helped me trace his movements to the bathroom and then to the kitchen. The kettle whistled. The fridge opened and closed. He was probably having bread with butter and jam.

Finally, a dim light crawled in through my window. My father had already left for work, and my mother was still sleeping. She didn't usually get out of bed until nine o'clock. I tossed, turned, and waited. Where was the sun? I tried to make plans for the day, but it was useless. I felt like I had tripped out of the normal flow of time. I stepped out of bed. The linoleum floor was even colder than the air and the kitchen was darker than my bedroom. It was as if I would never feel warm again. Maybe the sun was never going to rise. After having a cup of tea, all I could think of doing was to go to church. I put on the long brown wool coat my mother had made for me, covered my hair with a large beige shawl, and climbed down the twenty-four gray stone steps leading to the front door, which connected our apartment to the busy downtown street. The stores were still closed, and traffic was light. I walked to the church without looking up. There was nothing to see. Pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and hateful slogans like "Death to America," "Death to Israel," "Death to Communists and All the Enemies of Islam," and "Death to Anti-Revolutionaries" covered most walls.

It took me five minutes to get to the church. When I put my hand on the heavy wooden main door, a snowflake landed on my nose. Tehran always looked innocently beautiful under the deceiving curves of snow, and although the Islamic regime had banned most beautiful things, it couldn't stop the snow from falling. The government had ordered women to cover their hair and had issued edicts against music, makeup, paintings of unveiled women, and Western books, which had all been declared satanic and therefore illegal. I stepped inside the church, closed the door behind me, and sat in a corner, staring at the image of Jesus on the cross. The church was empty. I tried to pray, but words floated meaninglessly in my head. After about half an hour, I went to the church office to say hello to the priests and found myself standing face to face with Andre, the handsome organist. We had met a few months back, and I frequently saw him at the church. Everyone knew we liked each other, but we were both too shy to admit it, maybe because Andre was seven years older than I. Blushing, I asked him why he was there so early in the morning, and he explained that he had come to fix a broken vacuum cleaner.

"I haven't seen you in days," he said. "Where have you been? I called your house a few times, and your mother said you weren't feeling well. I was thinking about coming to your house today."

"I wasn't well. Just a cold or something."

He decided I looked too pale and should have stayed in bed for another couple of days, and I agreed. He offered to drive me, but I needed fresh air and walked home. If I wasn't so worried and depressed, I would have loved to spend time with him, but ever since my school friends, Sarah and Gita and Sarah's brother, Sirus, had been arrested and taken to Evin Prison, I had not been able to function. Sarah and I had been best friends since the first grade, and Gita had been a good friend of mine for more than three years. Gita had been arrested in mid-November and Sarah and Sirus on January 2. I could see Gita with her silky long brown hair and Mona Lisa smile, sitting on a bench by the basketball court. I wondered what had happened to Ramin, the boy she liked. She never heard from him after the summer of 1978, the last summer before the revolution, before the new order of the world. Now, she had been in Evin for more than two months, and her parents had not been allowed to see her. I called them once a week, and her mother always cried on the phone. Gita's mother stood at the door of their house for hours every day and stared at passersby, expecting Gita to come home. Sarah's parents had gone to the prison many times and had asked to see their children but had been denied.

Evin had been a political prison since the time of the shah. The name brought fear to every heart: it equaled torture and death. Its many buildings were scattered across a large area north of Tehran at the foot of the Alborz Mountains. People never talked about Evin; it was shrouded with fearful silence.

The night Sarah and Sirus were arrested, I had been lying on my bed, reading a collection of poems by Forough Farrokhzad when my bedroom door burst open and my mother appeared in the doorway.

"Sarah's mother just called . . ." she said.

I felt as if I were breathing shards of ice.

"Revolutionary guards arrested both Sarah and Sirus about an hour ago and took them to Evin."

I couldn't feel my body.

"What have they done?" my mother asked.

Poor Sarah and Sirus. They must have been terrified. But they were going to be fine. They had to be fine.

"Marina, answer me. What have they done?"

My mother closed my bedroom door behind her and leaned against it.

"Nothing. Well, Sarah has done nothing, but Sirus is a member of the Mojahedin." My voice sounded weak and distant to me. The Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization was a leftist Muslim group that had fought against the shah since the 1960s. After the success of the Islamic revolution, its members opposed Ayatollah Khomeini's unlimited power as the supreme leader of Iran and called him a dictator. As a result, the Islamic government declared their party illegal.

"I see. Then maybe they took Sarah because of Sirus."

"Maybe."

"Their poor mother. She was beside herself."

"Did the guards say anything?"

"They told their parents not to worry, that they just wanted to ask them a few questions."

"So, they might let them go soon."

"Well, from what you're telling me I'm sure they'll let Sarah go soon. But Sirus . . . well, he should have known better. There's no need to worry."

My mother left my room, and I tried to think but couldn't. Feeling exhausted, I closed my eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.

For twelve days after this, I slept most of the time. Even the thought of doing the simplest tasks felt tiring and impossible. I wasn't hungry or thirsty. I didn't want to read, go anywhere, or talk to anyone. Every night, my mother told me there was no news of Sarah and Sirus. Since they had been arrested, I knew I would be next. My name was on a list of names and addresses my chemistry teacher, Khanoom Bahman, had spotted in the principal's office — and our principal, Khanoom Mahmoodi, was a revolutionary guard. Khanoom Bahman was a good woman, and she had warned me that this list was addressed to the Courts of Islamic Revolution. However, there was nothing I could do but wait. I couldn't hide. Where would I go? The revolutionary guards were merciless. If they went to a house to arrest someone and that person was not home, they would take whoever was there. I couldn't risk my parents' lives to save myself. During the past few months hundreds of people had been arrested, accused of opposing the government in one way or another.

At nine o'clock at night, I went to take a bath. As soon as I turned the tap on and the water began to steam, the sound of the doorbell echoed in the house. My heart sank. No one rang our doorbell at this hour.

Turning the tap off, I sat on the edge of the tub. I heard my parents answer the door, and a few seconds later, my mother called my name. I unlocked the bathroom door and opened it. Two armed, bearded revolutionary guards wearing dark green military-style uniforms were standing in the hallway. One of them pointed his gun at me. I felt as though I had stepped out of my body and was watching a movie. This wasn't happening to me but to someone else, someone I didn't know.

"You stay here with them while I search the apartment," the second guard said to his friend and then turned to me and asked, "Where's your room?" His breath smelled of onions and made my stomach turn.

"Down the hallway, first door on your right."

My mother's body was shaking and her face had turned white. She had covered her mouth with her hand, as if to muffle a never-ending cry. My father was staring at me; he looked as if I were dying from a sudden, incurable disease and there was nothing he could do to save me. Tears fell down his face. I had not seen him cry since my grandmother's death.

The other guard soon came back with a handful of my books, all Western novels.

"Are these yours?"

"Yes."

"We'll take a few of them as evidence."

"Evidence of what?"

"Of your activities against the Islamic government."

"I don't agree with the government, but I haven't done anything against it."

"I'm not here to decide whether you're guilty or not; I'm here to arrest you. Put a chador on."

"I'm a Christian. I don't have a chador."

They were surprised. "That's fine," said one of them. "Put on a scarf and let's go."

"Where are you taking her?" my mother asked.

"To Evin," they answered.

With one of the guards following me, I went to my room, grabbed my beige cashmere shawl, and covered my hair with it. It was a very cold night, and the shawl was going to keep me warm, I decided. As we were about to step out of the room, my eyes fixed on my rosary, which sat on my desk. I took it.

"Hey, wait! What's that?" said the guard.

"My prayer beads. Can I bring them with me?"

"Let me see."

I handed him the rosary. He studied it, looking closely at each one of its pale blue stones and its silver cross.

"You can bring them. Praying is exactly what you need to do in Evin."

I dropped the rosary in my pocket.

The guards guided me to a black Mercedes parked at our door. They opened the back door, and I stepped in. The car started to move. I looked back and caught a glimpse of the bright windows of our apartment staring into darkness and the shadows of my parents standing in the doorway. I knew I was supposed to be terrified, but I wasn't. A cold void had surrounded me.

"I have a piece of advice for you," said one of the guards. "It's in your best interest to answer every question you're asked truthfully or you'll pay for it. You've probably heard that at Evin, they have their ways of making people talk. You can avoid the pain if you tell the truth."

The car speeded north toward the Alborz Mountains. At that hour, the streets were almost empty; there were no pedestrians and only a few cars. Traffic lights were visible from a distance, changing from red to green and back again. After about half an hour, in the pale moonlight, I saw the snakelike walls of Evin zigzagging across the hills. One of the guards was telling the other about his sister's upcoming marriage. He was very glad that the groom was a high-ranked revolutionary guard and from a well-to-do traditional family. I thought of Andre. A dull pain filled my stomach and spread into my bones, but it was as if something terrible had happened to him and not to me.

We entered a narrow, winding street, and the tall red brick walls of the prison appeared on our right. Every few yards, from lookout towers, floodlights poured their intense brightness into the night. We neared a large metal gate and came to a stop in front of it. There were bearded, armed guards everywhere. The barbed wire covering the top of the wall cast a tangled shadow on the pavement. The driver stepped out, and the guard sitting in the front passenger seat gave me a thick strip of cloth and told me to blindfold myself. "Make sure it's on properly, or you'll get in trouble!" he barked. With my blindfold in place, the car passed through the gates and continued for two or three minutes before again coming to a stop. The doors were opened and I was instructed to step out. Someone tied my wrists with rope and dragged me along. I stumbled over an obstacle and fell.

"Are you blind?" a voice asked, and laughter followed.

Soon, it felt warmer, and I knew we had entered a building. A narrow strip of light appeared below my blindfold, and I saw that we were walking along a corridor. The air smelled of sweat and vomit. I was instructed to sit on the floor and wait. I could feel other people sitting close to me, but I couldn't see them. Everyone was silent, but vague, angry voices came from behind closed doors. Every once in a while, I filtered out a word or two: Liar! Tell me! Names! Write it! And, sometimes, I heard people scream in pain. My heart began to beat so fast, it pushed against my chest and made it ache, so I put my hands on it and pressed down. After awhile, a harsh voice told someone to sit next to me. It was a girl, and she was crying.

"Why are you crying?" I whispered.

"I'm scared!" she said. "I want to go home."

"I know, me too, but don't cry. It's not going to help. I'm sure they'll let us go home soon," I lied.

"No, they won't," she cried. "I'm going to die here! We're all going to die here!"

"You have to be brave," I said and regretted saying it right away. Maybe she had been tortured. How dare I tell her to be brave?

"This is very interesting," said a man's voice. "Marina, you're coming with me. Get up and walk ten steps ahead. Then turn right."

The girl was crying loudly now. I did as I was told. The voice instructed me to take four steps ahead. A door closed behind me, and I was told to sit on a chair.

"You were very brave out there. Bravery is a rare quality in Evin. I've seen many strong men fall apart here. So, you're Armenian?"

"No."

"But you told the guards you were Christian."

"I am a Christian."

"So, you're Assyrian?"

"No."

"You're not making any sense. Christians are either Armenian or Assyrian."

"Most Iranian Christians are, but not all. Both my grandmothers migrated to Iran from Russia after the Russian revolution."

My grandmothers had married Iranian men who worked in Russia before the 1917 Communist revolution, but after the revolution, their husbands were forced to leave the Soviet Union because they weren't Russian citizens, and my grandmothers chose to come to Iran with them.

"So they're communists."

"If they were communists, why would they leave their country? They left because they hated communism. They were both devout Christians."

The man told me that a part of the Holy Koran spoke about Mary, Jesus' mother. He said that Muslims believed that Jesus was a great prophet and that they had great respect for Mary. He offered to read that part of the Koran for me. I listened as he read the Arabic text. He had a deep and gentle voice.

"So, what do you think?" he asked when he finished reading. I wanted him to continue, knowing that I was safe as long as he kept on reading, but I also knew I couldn't trust him. He was probably a revolutionary guard and a violent man who tortured and killed innocents without remorse.

"It was very nice. I've studied the Koran, and I've read that passage before," I said. My words came out of my mouth slightly jagged.

"You've studied the Holy Koran? Now, this is even more interesting! A brave Christian girl who's studied our book! And you're still a Christian, even though you know about our prophet and his teachings?"

"Yes, I am."

My mother had always told me that I spoke without thinking. She mentioned this when I answered questions truthfully, when I did my best not to be misunderstood.

"Interesting!" the Koran reader said with a laugh. "I'd like to continue this conversation at a more appropriate time, but right now, Brother Hamehd is waiting to ask you a few questions."

It seemed like I had truly amused him. Maybe I was the only Christian he had ever seen in Evin. He probably had expected me to be like most Muslim girls from traditional families: quiet, shy, and submissive, and I didn't have any of these qualities.

I heard him rise from his chair and leave the room. I felt numb. Maybe this was a place beyond fear where all normal human emotions suffocated without the luxury of even a struggle.

I waited, thinking they had no reason to torture me. Torture was usually used to extract information. I didn't know anything that could be of any use to them; I didn't belong to any political groups.

The door opened and closed, and I jumped. The Koran reader had returned. He introduced himself as Ali and told me that Hamehd was busy interrogating someone else. Ali explained that he worked for the sixth division of the Courts of Islamic Revolution, which was investigating my case. He sounded calm and patient but warned me that I had to tell the truth. It was very strange to have a conversation with someone without being able to see him. I had no idea what he looked like, how old he was, or what kind of a room we were in.

He told me that he knew I had expressed antirevolutionary ideas in school and that I had written articles against the government in my school newspaper. I didn't deny it. This was not a secret or a crime. He asked me if I worked with any communist groups, and I said I didn't. He knew about the strike I had started at school and believed that it was impossible for an individual without any connections with illegal political parties to organize a strike. I explained that I had not organized anything, which was the truth. I had only asked the calculus teacher to teach calculus instead of politics. She had told me to get out of the classroom, I had, and my classmates had followed me, and before I knew it, most of the students had heard about what had happened and had refused to go back to class. He couldn't believe that it had been this simple, saying that the information he had received suggested I had strong connections to communist groups.

"I don't know where you get your information," I said, "but it's completely wrong. I've studied communism the same way I've studied Islam, and it hasn't made me a communist any more than it has made me a Muslim."

"I'm actually enjoying this!" he said, laughing. "Give me the names of all the communists or any other antirevolutionaries from your school, and I'll believe you aren't lying."

Why was he asking me for the names of my schoolmates? He knew about the strike and the school newspaper, so Khanoom Mahmoodi must have talked to him and given him her list. But I couldn't risk telling him anything, because I didn't know whose name, besides mine, was on the list.

"I won't give you any names," I said.

"I knew you were on their side."

"I'm not on anybody's side. If I give you names, you'll arrest them. I don't want that to happen."

"Yes, we'll arrest them to make sure they aren't doing anything against the government, and if they aren't, we'll let them go. But if they are, we'll have to stop them. They'll have nobody to blame except themselves."

"I won't give you any names."

"How about Shahrzad? Are you denying that you know her?"

For a moment, I didn't know who he was talking about. Who was Shahrzad? But I soon remembered. She was a friend of Gita's and was a member of a communist group named Fadayian-e Khalgh. About two weeks before the summer holidays, Gita had asked me to meet with her, hoping that Shahrzad would be able to talk me into joining their group. I met with her only once and explained to her that I was a practicing Christian and was not interested in joining any communist groups.

Ali told me that they had been watching Shahrzad, but she had realized she was being watched and had gone into hiding. They had been searching for her for some time and believed she might have met with me again. Ali said that Shahrzad must have had a better reason for meeting with me than talking me into joining the Fadayian; she was too important to waste her time like that. No matter how much I tried to explain to him that I had nothing to do with her, he wouldn't believe me.

"We have to know her whereabouts," he said.

"I can't help you, because I don't know where she is."

He had remained calm during the interrogation and had never raised his voice. "Marina, listen carefully. I can see that you're a brave girl, and I respect this, but I have to know what you know. If you aren't willing to tell me, Brother Hamehd will be very upset. He isn't a very patient man. I don't want to see you suffer."

"I'm sorry, but I don't have anything to tell you."

"I'm sorry, too," he said and led me out of the room and through three or four hallways. A man was screaming. I was told to sit on the floor. Ali said that, like me, the man who was screaming didn't want to share any information but that he would soon change his mind.

Pain-saturated cries filled the air around me. Heavy, deep, and desperate, they penetrated my skin, spreading into every cell of my body. The poor man was being torn apart. The world became a slab of lead sitting on my chest.

The loud, severe impact of the lash. The man's scream. A split second of silence. And the cycle repeated itself.

After a few minutes, someone asked the man if he was ready to talk. His answer was no. The lashing started again. Although my wrists were tied, I tried to cover my ears with my arms to push the screams away, but it was useless. It went on and on, strike after strike, scream after scream.

"Stop . . . please . . . I'll talk . . ." the suffering man finally cried.

It stopped.

Nothing mattered except the fact that I had decided not to give them any names. I was not helpless. I was going to put up a fight.

"Marina, how are you?" asked the voice that had questioned the suffering man. "Ali has told me all about you. You have impressed him. He doesn't want you to get hurt, but business is business. Did you hear that man? He didn't want to tell me anything at the beginning, but he did at the end. It would've been a lot smarter if he'd told me what I wanted to know at the start. Now, are you ready to talk?"

I took a deep breath. "No."

"Too bad. Get up."

He grabbed the rope that was tied around my wrists, dragged me along for a few steps, and then pushed me to the ground. My blindfold was pulled off. A thin, small man with short brown hair and a mustache stood over me, holding my blindfold in his hand. He was in his early forties and was wearing brown casual pants and a white shirt. The room was empty except for a bare wooden bed with a metal headboard. He untied my wrists.

"Rope won't do; we need something harder and stronger," he said. He took a pair of handcuffs out of one of his pockets and put them on my wrists.

Another man entered the room. He was about six feet one and two hundred pounds, had very short black hair and a trimmed black beard, and was in his late twenties.

"Hamehd, has she talked?" he asked.

"No, she's pretty stubborn, but don't worry; she'll talk soon."

"Marina, this is your last chance," the newcomer said. I recognized his voice. Ali. His nose was a little too large, his brown eyes were expressive, and his eyelashes were long and thick. "You're going to talk at the end anyway, so you'd better do it now. Will you give us the names?"

"No."

"What I really want you to tell me is where Shahrzad is."

"I don't know where she is."

"Ali, look; she has such small wrists! They'll slide out of the cuffs," said Hamehd. He forced both my wrists into one cuff and dragged me to the bed. The metal cuff dug into my bones. A scream escaped my throat, but I didn't struggle, knowing that my situation was hopeless and would only worsen if I put up a fight. He fastened the free cuff to the metal headboard. Then, after pulling off my shoes, he tied my ankles to the bed.

"I'm going to whip the soles of your feet with this cable," Hamehd said, waving a length of black cable, which was a little less than an inch thick, in front of my face.

"Ali, how many do you think it will take to make her talk?"

"Not many."

"I'm saying ten."

The sharp, threatening whistle of the cable cut the air, and it landed on the soles of my feet.

Pain. I had never experienced anything like it. I couldn't even have imagined it. It exploded inside me like a bolt of lightning.

Second strike: my breath stopped in my throat. How could anything hurt so much? I tried to think of a way to help myself bear it. I couldn't scream, because there wasn't enough air left in my lungs.

Third strike: the scream of the cable and the blinding agony that followed. The "Hail Mary" filled my head.

Blows came, one after the other, and I prayed, struggling against pain. I hoped to lose consciousness, but it didn't happen. Each strike kept me wide awake for the next.

Tenth strike: I begged God to ease the pain.

Eleventh strike: it hurt more than all the ones before it.

God, please, don't leave me on my own. I can't take it.

It went on and on. Endless agony.

They'll stop if I give them a few names . . . No, they won't stop. They want to know about Shahrzad. I don't know anything about her anyway. The beating can't go on forever. I'll take it one at a time.

After sixteen strikes of the lash, I gave up counting.

Pain.

"Where is Shahrzad?"

I would have told if I knew. I would have done anything to stop it.

Strike.

I had experienced different kinds of pain before. I had broken my arm once. But this was worse. Far worse.

"Where is Shahrzad?"

"I really don't know!"

Agony.

Voices.

When Hamehd stopped, I could just find enough energy to turn my head and see him leave the room. Ali removed the handcuffs and untied my ankles. My feet ached, but the agonizing pain was gone, replaced by a soothing emptiness that spread inside my veins. A moment later, I could hardly feel my body, and my eyelids began to feel heavy. Something cold splashed against my face. Water. I shook my head.

"You're passing out, Marina. Come on, sit up," said Ali.

He pulled on my arms, and I sat up. My feet were now stinging as if a hundred bees had stung them. I looked at them. They were red and blue and very swollen. I was surprised that my skin had not burst.

"Do you have anything to tell me now?" Ali asked.

"No."

"This isn't worth it!" He glared at me. "Do you want another beating? Your feet will look a lot worse if you don't talk."

"I don't know anything."

"This isn't bravery anymore! It's stupidity! You could easily be executed for not cooperating with the government. Don't do this to yourself."

"Don't do this to me," I corrected him.

He looked me straight in the eyes for the first time and told me that they had all the names from my school. Khanoom Mahmoodi had given them the list. He said that my cooperation would change nothing for any of my friends, but it would save me from torture. He said that my friends would be arrested whether I talked or not, but if I wrote down their names, I wouldn't have to suffer any longer.

"I believe that you're telling the truth about Shahrzad," he said. "Don't try to be a hero; you could lose your life for it. Hamehd is sure that you're a member of the Fadayian, but I don't think so. A Fadayee wouldn't pray to Mary under torture."

I hadn't realized I had prayed out loud.

I asked if I were allowed to go to the bathroom, and he took my arm and helped me up. I felt dizzy. He put a pair of rubber slippers on the floor in front of the bed. They were at least four sizes too big for me, but because of the swelling they were too small. It hurt to put them on. He helped me walk across the room. It was not easy to keep my balance. Once we got to the door, he let go of my arm, gave me my blindfold, and told me to put it on. I did. He put a length of rope in my hand and guided me to the bathroom door. I stepped in, turned on the tap, and washed my face with cold water. A sudden wave of nausea rushed through me, my stomach contracted, and I vomited. It felt like a knife had cut me in half. A loud ringing filled my ears, and darkness swallowed me.

When I opened my eyes, I didn't know where I was. As my mind gradually cleared, I realized I wasn't in the bathroom anymore but was lying on the wooden bed where I had been tortured. Ali sat on a chair, watching me. My head felt very sore, and when I touched it, I felt a big bump on the right side of my forehead. I asked Ali what had happened, and he said I had fallen in the bathroom and had hit my head. He said that the doctor had seen me and had said that my condition wasn't too serious. Then he helped me sit in a wheelchair, put my blindfold back on, and pushed me out of the room. When he took off the blindfold, we were in a very small room with no windows and a toilet and a sink in the corner. There were two gray military blankets on the floor. He helped me lie down and spread one of them over me; it was rough and stiff and smelled of mold, but I didn't care; I was freezing. He asked if I was in pain, and I nodded, wondering why he was being nice to me. He left but came back in a few minutes with a middle-aged man wearing a military uniform whom he introduced as Doctor Sheikh.

The doctor gave me some kind of injection in the arm, and he and Ali left the cell. I closed my eyes and thought of home. I wished I could crawl into my grandmother's bed as I used to when I was a child, so she could tell me there was no reason to be scared, that it had all been a nightmare.

Copyright © 2007 by Marina Nemat

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