Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 25, 2016

Etem Erol 1955-2016

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 10:37 pm

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This afternoon I was at a memorial meeting for Etem Erol who taught Turkish language classes at Columbia University. I took classes with him in 2006 and 2007 that were a real delight. Not long after I took these classes, he took a job at Yale where he taught until his death in January 2016. This is from the Yale Herald, a student newspaper:

When I walked into my Elementary Turkish class last Friday, no one was dressed in all black. There were no flowers, and no one was crying. Instead, there was birthday cake and a bottle of Sprite and cheerful echoes of Nasılsın? Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Death had slipped unnoticed into our tiny classroom—we just didn’t know it yet.

When Meriç, our TF, told us that she had learned of Etem’s whereabouts, I expected a story of how the fishing that week was too good for him to pass up, or of how Alpha Delta Pizza had needed a line cook on short notice, and, knowing that we would be alright without him for a few days, Etem had volunteered. I pictured him grilling freshly-caught sea bass or enjoying a full Turkish breakfast at home, complete with honeyed kaymak spread and spicy, cured pastırma. I wondered if he was chortling his full-belly laugh and playing backgammon with his friends.

But when Meriç started to cry, we slowly lowered our half-raised forks of double fudge supermarket cake and tried to believe what she was saying: that Etem Erol, our Etem Erol, would not return to us, would not fish again, would never down another peach-flavored shot of rakı. A heavy, tired silence draped itself over everyone. We could barely move ourselves to swallow our cake and continue reviewing prepositions.

The tragedy was confirmed a few days later via an email that began as follows:

“Dear all,

I am writing to confirm what you probably already know or have heard rumored: the terrible news that our well-liked Turkish lector, Etem Erol, passed away after a heart attack in early January, while on vacation in Bulgaria. The funeral was in Turkey, and he was buried in his birthplace, as he wished.”

But even in the email, there was so much already missing, so much already on its way to being forgotten. In a few years, no one here will remember that Etem’s birthplace is an idyllic Mediterranean seaside town a stone’s throw across the straits from the Greek island Lesbos. No one will know that he was in Bulgaria furnishing the summer home he planned to retire to, or that he died in his brother’s arms. No one will know that he had a fondness for seftalı, or Turkish peaches, which he claimed to be an entirely different species than the faulty specimens we are subjected to in this country. People will forget that he could read coffee grounds, and that he believed that buying a lottery ticket was like buying yourself imagination for a week. No one will know that when faced with an impossible question in class, our default answer was “Etem çok yakışıklı,” or “Etem is very handsome.”

Etem has only been gone for a week, and already I feel him slipping away, piece by piece, until all that’s left of him is what we hold onto for safekeeping. Few among us will even care. And I don’t hold onto pretensions of special closeness with Etem; he was my professor, and I liked and respected him. I call him Etem only because he asked us to. But I don’t want to forget him. Not now and not ever. In fact, I’m afraid to forget him—if I do, what will that say about me? What will that say about our world and the place of death in our consciousness? Most of all, I’m afraid that I’m going to learn a cold truth: that these days, there is no space for death of the everyday, individual variety. We have no place for it anymore.

full article

This is from my 2006 article on learning Turkish:

For most of the first semester of elementary Turkish I just completed, I felt like I was barely treading water and in over my head. Learning a new language at the age of 61 is tough enough as it is, but studying it at an Ivy League institution like Columbia University is even more daunting. Twice I came this close (picture a thumb 1/8th of an inch away from a forefinger) from dropping it, but just received my grade: an A-!

Learning a language in some ways is like rehearsing for a play. You have to memorize your lines. In my final exam, I remembered most of the words I was expected to use in an essay question about a father taking his daughter to the playground (a sandbox is a ‘kum havuzu’; a pail and shovel are ‘kova’ and ‘kurek’), but drew a blank when I tried to remember how to say ‘for 3 days’ (uc gundur).

My main problem is that my brain doesn’t work the way it did when I was the age of my classmates. It used to be like a camera, now it is like a sieve. Five days after I learn how to use a verb ending, the memory becomes faded. Oddly enough, the Spanish I learned in high school 46 years ago adheres better.

Despite the difficulties and despite my deep aversion to taking tests and being graded, I have found learning Turkish to be a deeply rewarding experience. Being finally able to converse with my wife’s friends and relatives in Istanbul and Izmir would make my trips there much more pleasurable. Since we would eventually like to have a summer place in Izmir, this makes learning the language a necessity.

Perhaps the main reason I stuck with the class was the teacher Etem Erol, who is without doubt one of the finest I have studied with ever. Erol brings an enormous amount of patience, enthusiasm and good humor to the subject that shows up even when the class is going through the most tedious of drills. Additionally, he is passionate about Turkish culture and history and leavens each class with comments about a wide range of topics, from the Kurdish question to Turkish cuisine. It is impossible to imagine a more qualified and more dedicated professor.

Since my understanding of Turkish culture and history are about as rudimentary as my understanding of the language, I treasured observations the professor made during the course of the semester. To begin with, I suppose that most people understand that the Turkish language is a relatively modern invention. After Mustafa Kemal led a successful revolution that led to the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923, he instituted a number of reforms that were intended to modernize the country along the lines of certain Enlightenment ideals. One of them was to replace the Ottoman alphabet (a mixture of Arabic and Persian letters; words are read from right to left) with Roman letters. (There are additional letters in the Turkish alphabet that are distinguished by the presence of an accent or a symbol. For example, an i without the dot is pronounced “uh”; with it, it is pronounced more like the i in “in”.)

 

December 17, 2015

Slavoj Zizek’s shameful bid to tarnish Turkey’s image

Filed under: Syria,Turkey,Zizek — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

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Slavoj Zizek’s Dec. 9 article in the UK’s New Statesman amounts to little more than anti-Turkey propaganda

ISTANBUL – Slavoj Zizek’s most recent article, published on Dec. 9 in the U.K.’s New Statesman magazine, has been described by some as little more than propaganda unbecoming of an intellectual or an academic.

Ihsan Gursoy, editor of the In-Depth News Analysis Department at Anadolu Agency, responded to Zizek’s article by making the following observations:

Many Turkish readers were surprised by Slavoj Zizek’s Dec. 9 article in the New Statesman.

Unable to forget Zizek’s interesting analysis of German, French and American society based on their respective toilets, many Turkish readers were excited when Zizek said, “We need to talk about Turkey” – expecting to hear a similar psychoanalysis of Turkish society within the context of “Alla Turca” toilets.

Instead, however, Turkey was directly accused by Zizek of collaborating with a terrorist group.

Since the article in question amounted to little more than propaganda – containing a level of impoliteness unbecoming of an intellectual or an academic – we won’t engage in content-based criticism.

Rather, we will discuss the issue only in terms of ethics: editorial ethics and the ethics of accurate citation.

Zizek stated his conclusion at the outset of his article – a conclusion based entirely, with one exception, on quotes that he claimed to have obtained from an Anadolu Agency interview with Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT).

However, Anadolu Agency never conducted or published such an interview, nor had Fidan uttered the words – anywhere – attributed to him by Zizek.

The fabricated quotes attributed to Zizek – and officially refuted by Anadolu Agency on Oct. 20 – were, however, published on Oct. 18 on AWDnews.com, a “news” website of unknown origin.

Writing an article based on arguments from a fabricated news piece – not covered in any reliable news outlet with the exception of a website with no credibility (and which was probably set up with the purpose of producing disinformation) – would be shameful if done by an unscrupulous university student, let alone a highly-respected professor.

No less unethical is the claim – one that could have serious consequences – that a legitimate country is in cahoots with terrorist organizations.

If our imagined student was to submit such an article as a research paper, he would come in for harsh criticism – first for his misuse of sources, then for his credulousness; for considering all information online as true without cross-checking it with other sources.

He may even be accused of plagiarism – since he failed to use quotation marks for sentences taken directly from his “source” – and could ultimately be expelled.

So what, we wonder, would drive a prominent academic like Zizek – who could not but be aware of these basic principles – to write such an article?

Once the arguments obtained from the fabricated quotes found on AWDnews.com are dispensed with, only one of Zizek’s sources remains: David Graeber’s article in the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper, entitled: “Turkey could cut off Islamic State’s supply lines. So why doesn’t it?”

But Zizek wasn’t satisfied with merely sourcing an article rife with baseless claims. By pretending to quote Graeber indirectly (he does not use quotation marks), Zizek manages to insert his own claims – claims not made by Graeber – into his own article while making them sound as if they came from Graeber.

Graeber, for example, mentions neither Turkey’s alleged facilitating role in Daesh’s oil exports, nor the wounded Daesh terrorists allegedly being treated in Turkey – claims that are made in Zizek’s article.

Zizek could have written a separate paragraph making these claims on his own authority, but why did he feel the need to quote The Guardian’s Graeber?

Setting aside the issue of intellectual honesty for a moment, why didn’t he, as an academic, comply with the basic rules of citation?

As soon as it became clear – on the very same day that the article was published – that the source of the arguments on which the article was based was a fabricated interview, the New Statesman removed these parts of the article and added a note, stating: “This article originally included a statement that was falsely attributed to the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization. This has now been removed.”

Now the question begs itself: does the removal of the inaccurate parts of the article – and the subsequent addition of the explanatory note by the New Statesman – comply with basic editorial ethics?

The answer is no. On the contrary, the mere removal of blatant inaccuracies in such a controversial article serves to hamper healthy discussion of the issues involved.

Simple editorial ethics demand that the writer’s dishonesty be pointed out to the reader, by, for example, adding a note stating something to the effect of “These assertions have been proven false”.

Rather, the magazine merely attempted to cover up the article’s deceptions once they had been exposed, making the New Statesman itself complicit in the editorial dishonesty.

The New Statesman should have kept the article on its site while pointing out its flaws – in the manner we have described above – due to the extreme sensitivity of the assertions made by the author.

What’s more, the magazine should have published an apology to its readers for running the article in the first place.

So we ask the New Statesman directly:

How could you publish an article – on such a sensitive subject – without first subjecting it to a modicum of editorial scrutiny? Without verifying, by merely clicking on a couple of links, whether the sources therein were even remotely credible?

How can such a well-established publication – and such a prominent intellectual, such as Zizek – so easily risk its dignity and reputation?

December 3, 2015

Turkey and ISIS: separating fact from fiction

Filed under: Jihadists,Syria,Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Showing his characteristic indifference to the facts, John Wight wrote on RT.com (where else?) that Columbia University professor David L. Phillips had revealed that the Turkish government had been “involved in helping ISIS with recruitment, training, and has provided it with intelligence and safe havens and sanctuary.”

However, if you go to the report, which was published on Huffington Post under the title “Research Paper: ISIS-Turkey List”, you need to read the fine print that indicates it was only a list of allegations, something Wight apparently did not do. For example, I can compile a list of allegations that global warming is a hoax but that does not mean that I have proved that it is. Right?

It is just as possible, however, that he read it and decided to sweep it under the rug in order to turn the research paper (more of an aggregation of links)  into some kind of smoking gun proving that Turkey and ISIS were in cahoots. The article, published with the imprimatur of Columbia University’s “Institute for the Study of Human Rights”, clearly says that it is providing a list of allegations. Let me repeat that with emphasis. It is a list of allegations. Also, at the very end of the report it says: Author’s Note: Information presented in this paper is offered without bias or endorsement. (Emphasis in the original.)

One can certainly understand why RT.com would allow a semi-literate propagandist like John Wight to turn “allegations” into proof. As most people in touch with reality understand, Russia Today is a kind of Fox News for the “anti-imperialist” left, providing red meat with the kind of mad abandon found in a typical Bill O’Reilly show.

As a prime example, look at this screenshot from an 11/25/2015 RT.com article titled “Ankara’s oil business with ISIS”. And in particular note that it states “an alleged ISIS leader”. By stipulating “alleged”, one gathers that this item might have easily qualified for Professor Phillips’s list.

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However, the allegation has about as much substance as a Donald Trump speech on Mexican immigrants. It turns out that the bearded guys were owners of a kebab restaurant in Turkey and had nothing to do with ISIS. I guess having a beard makes you eligible for racial profiling in the Russian media.

If there is one thing that Russia and Turkey have in common, it is a shady news media. Many of Phillips’s citations come from ODA TV, an ultranationalist outlet that is about as reliable as Russia Today. For example, as one of the “allegations” there is this video clip “allegedly showing ISIS militants riding a bus in Istanbul.” Other than their long hair and black shirts (but beardless?), there’s not much else to go by. For all practical purposes, they could have been Metallica fans.

When there is a link to a more reputable outlet such as Taraf, a liberal newspaper that has partnered with Wikileaks, it is once again an allegation rather than hard evidence. In one instance, the Taraf article cites Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, “a founder of the AKP”, who said that Turkey backs ISIS. But you need to dig a bit deeper to understand the nature of the allegation. The article is dated October 12, 2015, just two days after a terrorist bomb killed 100 people at a rally organized by the leftist/Kurdish HDP. While Firat was indeed a founder of the AKP, he had broken with the party and joined the HDP. As such it is not surprising that he would charge the AKP with being an accomplice to ISIS terror.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being a partisan of the Kurdish struggle. Indeed, David L. Phillips is one himself. His book “The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East” was published this year with none other than Bernard Kouchner providing a forward.

The choice of Kouchner makes perfect sense in terms of Phillips’s self-description as a “U.S. official” involved with Kurdish affairs. To give you a clear idea of his orientation, this speaks volumes:

Toppling Saddam was a clear priority for President George W. Bush after 9/11. Ambassador William J. Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), encouraged me to get involved in Iraq’s political transition. Qubad Talabani, the PUK representative in Washington, arranged my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2002. I flew to Qamishli, a Kurdish city in Northeast Syria. In a cinder-block building on the Tigris River, a Syrian official served me tea and checked my authorization to transit from Syria to Iraq. Sure enough, my name and passport number were handwritten in his registry. Qubad provided a four-digit code: 3462. The official checked to see if the code matched his registry and issued a letter of passage.

Well, one can certainly understand why John Wight might lean on the authority of David L. Phillips. In an age when the “anti-imperialist” left is channeling Christopher Hitchens’s ghost, such an affinity makes perfect sense.

October 26, 2015

Seymour Hersh vindicated on sarin gas attack? Not really

Filed under: journalism,Syria,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:44 pm

Fethullah Gülen: should we take his newspaper reports at face value?

As I pointed out in my article on “Baathist Truthers”, most members of the amen corner simply operate on a different basis than Marxism. Their method can be described as conspiracism and has a long history on the left. In its latest permutation, it boils down to a bastardized form of “investigative journalism” in which there is an almost obsessional need to find out the key piece of documentation—a Wikileaks cable, etc.—that will finally prove that the USA is responsible for everything bad that has happened in Syria rather than acknowledge it as the result of a bitter conflict over rival class interests. Syrian society? Don’t bother me with such irrelevancies, our conspiracists would maintain. The only thing that matters are CIA plots.

You get the same thing with Ukraine. From the minute the Euromaidan protests erupted, they were looking for the “proof” that the USA was behind the unrest. A phone call made by State Department Official Victoria Nuland was to blame, not corruption or police brutality. In such a schema, the Ukrainian or Syrian workers were marionettes sitting motionlessly on their behinds until the puppet-master began pulling their strings.

It should be mentioned that it is not just people on the left who have upheld conspiracy theories about Syria. Antiwar.com, a popular website run by Justin Raimondo who was the San Francisco coordinator of Proposition 187 that would have banned undocumented workers from using health care, public education, and other services in California, can usually be counted upon to spread the latest talking points of the conspiracist left.

As a key element of conspiracism, the false flag narrative crops up over and over. Early on, Global Research’s Tony Cartalucci was reporting that it was not Baathist snipers firing on peaceful protests but men recruited by the CIA or Saudi Arabia to make the progressive, tolerant and democratically elected Baathist state look bad.

Of course, the most infamous use of the “false flag” argument was that advanced on behalf of Bashar al-Assad immediately after the sarin gas attack in East Ghouta in August 2013. Ever since Assad surrendered his chemical weapons and began relying on impeccably clean conventional weapons to level apartment buildings and everybody who lived inside them, there hasn’t been much discussion about who was responsible.

But the topic reared its ugly head in the Oct. 23-25 weekend edition of CounterPunch with Peter Lee’s article “Hersh Vindicated? Turkish Whistleblowers Corroborate Story on False Flag Sarin Attack in Syria”. On most topics, Lee can be counted on to present logical arguments based on hard data but like most non-Marxists on the left, he makes a fool out of himself when it comes to Syria.

For example, his “proof” that Turkey mounted a false flag operation in cahoots with al-Nusra and ISIS relies on the testimony of sworn enemies of the ruling AKP:

I find the report credible, taking into full account the fact that the CHP (Erdogan’s center-left Kemalist rivals) and Today’s Zaman (whose editor-in-chief, Bulent Kenes was recently detained on live TV for insulting Erdogan in a tweet) are on the outs with Erdogan.

“On the outs”? That is like saying that Abe Lincoln was on the outs with Jefferson Davis. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been jailing Kemalist politicians and military men for years now. None other than chief conspiracist Eric Draitser considers Erdoğan to be the head of a “country that has given over to violence as a political tool, repression and censorship as standard government practice.” If you were a member of a party that was being hounded into submission by the Turkish ruling party, wouldn’t you be willing to make things up to embarrass Erdoğan or even to make him step down? This is especially true given the Kemalists’ own sleazy modus operandi. This is a party, after all, that backed one coup after another and that tortured and killed leftists and Kurds with a zeal that would make the typical Arab dictator green with envy.

Let’s assume that these sources are worth listening to for the moment. Do their reports make any sense? Lee offers up an article in “Today’s Zaman” in its entirety as evidence. This is the newspaper of the Gülen movement that has built charter schools in the USA to further its credibility with a wing of the ruling class whose favor it is attempting to curry. It shares the AKP’s goal of liquidating the Kemalist party. The relationship between the Kemalists, the AKP, and the Gülenists is quite byzantine. Prosecutors and judges sympathetic to Gülen were instrumental in railroading Kemalists to prison on behalf of the AKP. Now that the Kemalists have been tamed, the same prosecutors and judges are involved in cases being made against AKP leaders for corruption as the NY Times reported on February 26, 2014:

Many of the prosecutors and investigators in both cases — the corruption inquiry and the old military trials — are followers of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The adherents in his network were once partners in Mr. Erdogan’s governing coalition, but the government now considers them a “parallel state” to be rooted out through purges of the police and the judiciary.

A circular firing squad indeed and not conducive to impartial reports on sarin gas or much of anything else.

Basically, the Zaman report recapitulates the details of an arrest made in Adana, Turkey in May 2013, two months before the attack in Ghouta. In a nutshell, a group of 13 al-Nusra front members in Turkey had conspired with AKP officials to send sarin gas to Syria that would be used in a false flag operation meant to provoke the USA into a “regime change” invasion of Syria:

Taking the floor first, Erdem stated that the Adana Chief Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into allegations that sarin was sent to Syria from Turkey via several businessmen. An indictment followed regarding the accusations targeting the government.

“The MKE [Turkish Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation] is also an actor that is mentioned in the investigation file. Here is the indictment. All the details about how sarin was procured in Turkey and delivered to the terrorists, along with audio recordings, are inside the file,” Erdem said while waving the file.

Erdem also noted that the prosecutor’s office conducted detailed technical surveillance and found that an al-Qaeda militant, Hayyam Kasap, acquired sarin, adding: “Wiretapped phone conversations reveal the process of procuring the gas at specific addresses as well as the process of procuring the rockets that would fire the capsules containing the toxic gas. However, despite such solid evidence there has been no arrest in the case. Thirteen individuals were arrested during the first stage of the investigation but were later released, refuting government claims that it is fighting terrorism,” Erdem noted.

Over 1,300 people were killed in the sarin gas attack in Ghouta and several other neighborhoods near the Syrian capital of Damascus, with the West quickly blaming the regime of Bashar al-Assad and Russia claiming it was a “false flag” operation aimed at making US military intervention in Syria possible.

For Lee, this reporting “supports Seymour Hersh’s reporting that the notorious sarin gas attack at Ghouta was a false flag orchestrated by Turkish intelligence in order to cross President Obama’s chemical weapons ‘red line’ and draw the United States into the Syria war to topple Assad.”

If you have access to Nexis, you can check out what other newspapers were saying at the time.

To start with, the cops who arrested the 13 men reported that the two kilograms of sarin gas were going to be used against government offices in Turkey, not targeted at Syria. “The reports claimed that the al-Nusra members had been planning a bomb attack for Thursday in Adana but that the attack was averted when the police caught the suspects.” (Cihan News Agency, May 30, 2013) Things get even weirder as the same article indicates that the AKP blamed Syria for recent attacks by the terrorists. Now, there’s something you don’t see every day. Al-Assad using the al-Nusra Front in terrorist attacks on Turkey. Oh, by the way, the agency responsible for this rather incoherent article is also a Gülenist property, just like Zaman.

It should be stressed that this same news agency never claimed that ISIS was supposed to be the beneficiary of sarin gas supplied by some conspiracists either inside or outside the Turkish government. Instead it claimed that it was Ahrar al-Sham. So what’s the big deal, some might ask. They are Islamists, after all. Well, maybe so but Ahrar al-Sham was a bitter rival of ISIS so much so that it was targeted by the latter in suicide bombings. Well, who cares about such petty details when you are trying to make a bigger point, even if it is mindless conspiracism?

Later on the authorities changed their story. There was no sarin gas but only the ingredients that go into its manufacture.

But even if there was, what possible connection could that have with the East Ghouta attack that left over a thousand Syrians dead? Unless you are Mint Press that wrote at the time that the sarin gas seeped out from a storage area under rebel control due to an accidental breakage of containers, you need to be able to weaponize the stuff. This means having the technical means to construct rockets, delivery systems and the quantity of sarin gas required to disperse over a wide area.

This does not even get into the question of why al-Nusra would be involved in a “false flag” operation to precipitate a massive US intervention. Unlike the FSA, this group could not count on a free-fly zone or any other supposed benefit of intervention. It was considered a far more deadly enemy than the Baathists and one that the US has already targeted in lethal raids. I suppose that because all of these groups are “rebels” in one sense or another, it was easy for Hersh and anybody else in the amen corner to paper over the differences. Such sloppiness is endemic to the conspiracy-minded.

In April 2014, Elliot Higgins and Dan Kazseta wrote a Comments are Free piece in the Guardian taking issue with Seymour Hersh’s LRB article that remains as current as ever.

After mustering a wealth of video evidence that Baathist Volcano rockets were the means of delivery, the authors pose seven issues that had to be addressed. It is a total shame that none of the conspiracists in Assad’s amen corner has the scruples or intelligence to deal with them. Instead they would rather circulate the incoherent Gülenist press or rely on Seymour Hersh’s unnamed sources in spookworld. You are asked to take his word even if one CounterPunch contributor had this to say about him: “When there are serious political repercussions in the Middle East from Hersh’s much-read pieces, it would help for him to know better what he’s talking about.”

Firstly, sarin is difficult to make. Anyone who claims otherwise is oblivious to both history and chemical engineering. Germany, the US and the former Soviet Union took years to perfect the process. Its production requires a number of complex steps and the ability to handle highly dangerous chemicals at very closely controlled high temperatures and pressures. There is no evidence anyone has come up with any sort of streamlined method to manipulate the molecules to make sarin.

Second, quantity. Perfecting the process isn’t enough – there is a difference between making a spoonful and enough for the August attacks, which would have needed about half a ton. This assumes a scale only reached by big state production programmes. To put it in perspective, the one verified example of non-state production of sarin was the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. Their many millions of dollars, very large purpose-built manufacturing facility and highly qualified staff got them the ability to make single batches of perhaps 8 litres of short shelf life Sarin. The alleged Aleppo plant wouldn’t need to be the size of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in the US, but it would have needed to be closer to that than the size of a house.

Third is the choice of weapon. Of the panoply of chemical warfare agents available to modern science and engineering, sarin is one of the hardest to make. So why was this one chosen? Even its nerve agent kin, Tabun and VX, are arguably easier to produce; mustard or lewisite are easier and use less technology. Numerous toxic industrial chemicals which might “fly under the radar” of non-proliferation regimes could be used as weapons. So why pick the hardest?

Fourth, economics. To make this operation work it is going to take a lot of highly trained people, raw materials, and specialised equipment, as well as a facility. It would cost many tens of millions of dollars. When the rebel factions are so stretched for resources, does it make any sense to spend, say, $50m on a weapon of limited utility? Lavish expenditure must raise a paper trail somewhere; there would be order books and receipts. Let’s see them.

Fifth is logistics. You don’t turn precursor material magically into sarin: you need about 9kg to end up with 1kg of sarin. This stuff has to come from somewhere, but where? Hersh omits these details, as do most of the alternative narratives. It is simply assumed that things like phosphorus trichloride and thionyl chloride just get summoned up in vast quantities without someone noticing. Most commentators on this issue have also forgotten about something called conservation of mass. If you use 9kg of material to synthesize 1kg of sarin you end up with 8kg of waste, rather a lot of which is very dangerous, smelly and corrosive. This waste stream has to go somewhere, and someone will notice. There are also the logistics of getting a lot of sarin into rockets and getting those rockets from Aleppo to Damascus.

Sixth, concealment. How do you hide all of this? The building, the supply chain, the people, the money, and the very smelly waste stream. Where are they? They need to be concealed not just from the Syrian regime but from other rebel factions, western intelligence agencies, the Russians, and perhaps even your own people who might desert, get captured or say silly things on YouTube videos. There is deathly silence from Aleppo and we only find out about it from Hersh?

Lastly is the specificity of the product. There are important physical clues found in the traces of sarin at the impact sites of the 21 August rocket attack. One of these is the presence of hexamine, a chemical with no history of use in nerve agent production. But hexamine can be used as an acid scavenger, and thus its presence could be explained due to its use as an additive to the sarin. This idea has been reinforced by both the admission of the Syrian regime that they used hexamine as part of their formula, and by Syria’s declaration to the OPCW of an inventory of 80 tonnes of hexamine, specifically as part of their chemical weapons program. Surely, as an uncontrolled substance, they could have omitted it from their declarations. But they didn’t. Hexamine in field samples plus hexamine in Syrian inventories, plus an admission that hexamine was in their recipe, seems a compelling case for tying the Sarin in the field to the Syrian regime. How would an Aleppo-based rebel factory somehow come up with the same exact idea?

Taken cumulatively, all these points add up to a very high degree of improbability. Isn’t it more probable that the Sarin came from the people who confessed to having a Sarin factory, fired from areas controlled by the government 2km away from the impact sites, in munitions the government had been using since 2012?

September 17, 2015

The Cut

Filed under: Armenians,Film,genocide,Turkey — louisproyect @ 7:40 pm

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza in New York is “The Cut”, a film by Turkish director Fatih Akin that uses the Armenian genocide as a backdrop for a family drama that is the director’s best work by far. It is notable for its unstinting depiction of Turkish bestiality and is particularly welcome at this point given the AKP’s eagerness to resort to ethnic cleansing once again on the most cruel and cynical basis, namely to corral votes from nationalistic minded Turks for the upcoming election.

In the city of Mardin in 1915 a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian (Tahar Rahim) lives with his wife and his twin daughters who are attending elementary school. At dinner, the Manoogians and their guests are anxious about reports of Armenians being rounded up but Nazaret assures them that they have nothing to worry about since they are no threats to the existing order.

A few days later Turkish soldiers pound on the door in the middle of the night demanding to be admitted in the name of the military. Seizing Nazaret, they claim that he and other Armenian men are being rounded up for the draft. This turns out to be a lie. Instead they have been dragooned into building roads in the desolate countryside of eastern Anatolia near the border with Syria. This period was integral to the formation of the modern state of Turkey that rested on the slavery and mass murder of Armenians. It was the tragic fate of the Armenians to be subject to both forms of oppression, combining forced labor of the kind that existed in the Deep South with Andrew Jackson’s forced march that cost the lives of countless Cherokees.

The Armenians spend their days breaking rocks under the desert sun just like convict labor in Jim Crow days. When weaker men fail to keep up with the backbreaking pace, Turkish overseers casually beat them to death. Relief from the hellish chain gang finally comes but at a terrible price. They are told that they will be spared if they become Muslims. While Akin probably wrote his script before the current madness began taking place in Iraq and Syria, you cannot help but be reminded of Daesh since those men who refuse conversion will find themselves taken out and executed, including Nazaret.

As the Turkish soldiers look on, a Turkish convict is ordered to cut the throats of the men one by one since they don’t want to waste a bullet on an Armenian. When he comes to Nazaret, he cuts his neck but not deeply enough to kill him. Later in the day, as Nazaret lies wounded among his dead comrades, the convict returns and gives him water and food. He explains that even though he is a thief, he is not a killer.

Although his life has been spared, the cut of the convict’s knife was deep enough to damage his vocal chords. From this point on in the film, Nazaret is rendered mute. Tahar Rahim delivers a stunning performance using his hands and facial muscles to convey a character whose suffering is oceanic. Rahim, an Algerian who grew up in France, starred most recently in “The Past”, a film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that I considered the best in 2013. I would rank Rahim as one of the top five actors in the world and is at his best in Akin’s film.

The two men head toward Syria and finally part ways when the convict must return to his village. Once in Syria, Nazaret learns that his wife died in a Turkish concentration camp but not before she had a chance to turn her daughters over to Bedouins who would pass them off as their own children to protect them from the Turks. The kindness of many Syrians is stressed in “The Cut”, including the solidarity shown toward Nazaret by an Arab soap merchant who identifies with the Armenians despite having a different faith. There is a tension throughout the film between solidarity and ethnic cleavage.

Resisting the temptation to demonize Turks, Akin depicts the expulsion of ordinary citizens from Syria in early 1920s as the Ottoman Empire was unraveling. As they parade in silence through the main streets of Aleppo, Arabs pelt the Turks with stones. The expression on Nazaret’s face is one of disgust as he sees how the victims can so easily become victimizers.

Seeking assistance from an Armenian social service agency, he learns that his daughters are no longer with the Bedouins but are now in a foster home somewhere in Syria. Thus begins a search to find them that takes him into the Armenian diaspora with desperate trips to Cuba and the northern plains of the United States where his poverty and loss of speech make his task all the more difficult. Those who have seen John Ford’s “The Searchers” will see a clear resemblance even though this was probably not Akin’s intention.

Although Akin takes pains to differentiate his work from ones that are more narrowly focused on the social and political origins of the first genocide of the 20th century, there is little doubt that the audience will sympathize for the community’s demand to be compensated by the Turkish state for their suffering.

As I have pointed out in previous articles, it is to the everlasting shame of the Zionist state that it sided with the Turks in dismissing Armenian claims. In an article dated April 19, 2015 I referred to the work of an Israeli historian:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

“The Cut” is the final installment in a trilogy that began in 2004 with “Head-On” and continued with “The Edge of Heaven” in 2007. He refers to the three films as “Love, Death and the Devil”. “Head-On” is a tale about a middle-aged Turkish man living “down and out” in Germany who hooks up with a much younger Turkish woman on the basis of a phony marriage that would allow her to leave her repressively conservative family life. Theirs is a grim sadomasochistic relation that will remind you of Sid Cox’s “Sid and Nancy”, about the Sex Pistol bassist and the girlfriend he killed. Although I regarded the film as pointless despite Akin’s profession that it was a statement about Turks being caught between German and Turkish identity, 90 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes thought it was “fresh”.

I reviewed “The Edge of Heaven” when it came out and dismissed it as a derivative attempt to cash in on a trend set by films such as “Babel” and “Crash” that I referred to as having a combination of far-fetched coincidence and liberal pieties that seem to be irresistible to film festival award panels.

None of this prepared me for the power of “The Cut” that left me just this close to sobbing in the final minute.

“The Cut” is a remarkable film on many levels. Technically, it is a demonstration of the lasting power of 35 mm film with Akin insisting on the use of Cinemascope. In the scenes shot in eastern Anatolia, mountains and the desert have an immediacy that would not be achieved using a digital camera.

It is also a work that gives you a feeling of being transported into a remote time and place as if you have traveled in a time machine. In the press notes, Akin reveals a dedication to “getting it right” that is virtually heroic:

I think I’ve read about 100 books on the topic, even the diary of an Armenian who emigrated to Cuba. Documents about orphanages, stories about the brothels in Aleppo. I also travelled to Armenia for the first time and visited the genocide memorial in Yerevan, where I met the memorial’s director, Hayk Demoyan. He told me that a lot of Armenians had emigrated to Cuba to reach North America. There are lots of Armenians who don’t even know this! So I incorporated that into the film.

This is a film of uncompromising integrity with a commitment to both a victimized people and to the higher calling of filmmaking. Look for it in your better theaters across the USA and elsewhere since it is of paramount importance particularly given the dynamics of a looming catastrophe in Turkey once again.

 

June 8, 2015

Ahmet Tonak on the Turkish elections

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 4:14 pm

This morning I conducted an interview with Ahmet Tonak about the Turkish elections. Ahmet is an economist at Bilgi University in Istanbul and co-author with Anwar Shaikh of “Measuring the Wealth of Nations” as well as co-editor of “Turkey in Transition: New Perspectives”. He has also been a participant in the People’s Democratic Congress, out of which the People’s Democratic Party emerged. His analysis will be of great use to those trying to understand recent political developments in Turkey.

April 19, 2015

Israel, Armenians and genocide denial

Filed under: Armenians,genocide,Roma,Turkey — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

People like me who continue to read the NY Times print edition could not help but notice a full-page ad that appeared this week:

This is now the second ad that attacks the Obama administration for what amounts to genocide denial. In February, it was Susan Rice’s “refusal” to refer to a Rwandan genocide that was the subject of another NYT ad, once again sponsored by “Shmuley Boteach: America’s Rabbi” and “The World: Values Network” that amount to the same thing. The purpose of such ads is to smear the White House as being in league with Iran, which according to Zionist ideologues like Boteach is committed to murdering every last Israeli and—who knows—maybe every Jew in the world.

These ads cost $104,000 and Boteach has run plenty of them. You might ask yourself how a rabbi can come up with the dough. Here’s the answer. They are being paid for by Sheldon Adelson, the 8th richest man in the world who is worth $36.4 billion according to Fortune Magazine. Adelson has become rather infamous for lavishing huge sums of money on the most reactionary Republican Party politicians, including the bellicose miscreant Senator from Arkansas Tom Cotton who wrote an open letter to the Iranian leaders telling them that a treaty with the USA would be nullified after Obama left the White House. He has followed up with a statement that a bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be a cakewalk.

The most recent ad is notable because it tries to position the Zionist establishment as arch-defenders of Armenians trying to make Turkey pay for the genocide that occurred exactly 100 years ago. Like Obama, the current president of Turkey is willing to admit that there were massacres of Armenians in 1915 but balks at calling it genocide.

The Pope made news recently for calling it exactly that. Not one to back way from challenges, President Erdogan counter-attacked by reminding the Holy Father that his church backed the Crusades and the Inquisition. (He didn’t mention it but I would have also referred to Pope Pius XII’s refusal to condemn Hitler’s murder of six million Jews.)

One might think based on the most recent ad that Israelis would have been staunch defenders of Armenian claims given their shared victimization. As it turns out, this was not the case at all. In 2007, Mark Arax, a LA Times reporter of Armenian descent (LA has a very large Armenian population) wrote an article that exposed Israel’s tilt toward Turkey over the 1915 genocide and that riled up the Israel lobby for simply quoting them. David Twersky of the American Jewish Congress admitted to him: “As Jews, we have a tremendous reverence for the moral imperatives of history. But then there is the aspect that no Muslim country is closer to Israel than Turkey. So we feel paralyzed by a set of conflicting emotions.” Others were not so conflicted:

Other Jewish leaders, believing the security needs of the U.S. and Israel trump distant history, are siding with Turkey.

“I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue. The resolution takes a position. It comes to a judgment,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history,” he said. “And I don’t think the U.S. Congress should be the arbiter either.”

So egregious was Israel’s indifference to the Armenian genocide that one Israeli historian was moved to write the aptly titled “The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide” in 2000, a work that states:

But the State of Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the genocide of the Armenian People. Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled, In 1982, the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an inter-national conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film. “Journey to Armenia,” was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

Leaving aside Israel’s realpolitik ties to Turkey, there’s another factor that weighed heavily in genocide denial, namely the refusal to accept the possibility that any other people except the Jews were so victimized in the 20th century. On a state visit to Turkey in 2001, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres put it this way: “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenia’s went through but not a genocide.”

It was not just the Armenians who got short shrift. Elie Wiesel, one of the worst apologists for Zionist brutality, was adamant that the Roma were not as elevated as the Jews. Serving as gatekeeper for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, Wiesel said that the Roma were not allowed. Writing for RADOC, a Roma website, Ian Hancock—one of the world’s foremost Roma scholars—described Wiesel’s intransigence:

In July, 1988, I was invited to present a paper entitled “Uniqueness of the victims” at the Remembering for the Future: Responses to the Holocaust conference at Oxford University. I was accompanied by a gentleman named Leland Robison who recently reminded me of a startling confrontation I had with Professor Wiesel at that event—though I’d scarcely forgotten it. It remains very clear in my mind to this day. Professor Wiesel, surrounded by cameras and journalists, was being interviewed on the university grounds. During a break between questioning, I approached him and said “Professor Wiesel, please don’t forget the Gypsies!” He turned aggressively towards me, glared, and barked “Mister Hancock! I have read what you have written! And I don’t like it! I don’t like it at all!!” and turned away.

It is probably not too hard to figure out why Israel has changed its mind about the Armenians. It has everything to do with the feud with Turkey’s AKP over its condemnations of the worst features of the occupation of the West Bank and its solidarity with Gaza, no matter how limited. Once Erdogan began to be seen as Israel’s enemy, the Armenians became Israel’s friends in a maneuver whose cynicism was obvious to all. Writing for Huffington Post in 2011, Harut Sassounian, the Armenian publisher of the California Courier, reported on how “Israel May Retaliate Against Turkey by Recognizing the Armenian Genocide”:

Finally, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Majalli Whbee angrily lashed back at the Prime Minister of Turkey. Several Turkish media outlets quoted Whbee as stating: “Erdogan says that genocide is taking place in Gaza. We [Israel] will then recognize the Armenian related events as genocide.” Whbee, a member of the Israeli Knesset and a close confidante of Prime Minister Olmert, issued the following warning to Turkey: “We, as Israel, hope that Prime Minister Erdogan’s statements will not damage our relations. But, if Turkey does not behave fairly, this will have its consequences.”

In a sense, it is baffling why Israel would not consider Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians as anything but a nation-building necessity that countries such as Turkey, the U.S. and Israel were forced to adopt in their infancy. Israeli historian Benny Morris defended the Nabka this way: “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”

Morris has a point even if it is malevolent. When the Turkish army forced the Armenians to take a “long march” into Syria, was that any different than Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokees in the “trail of tears”? Was it really the responsibility of the Turks or the Americans to feed and provide water for a nationality that was inimical to its own economic well-being? After all, some Armenians had allied themselves with Russia, Turkey’s long-time enemy. Was this any different from FDR herding Japanese-Americans into concentration camps? Mind you, I don’t believe any of this bullshit myself; I am just trying to give you a sense of how sleazy bastards like Benny Morris think.

December 10, 2014

Winter Sleep

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.

Most of the action in “Winter Sleep” takes place in the Hotel Othello, one of the Cappadocian dwellings that grow out of a cliff like a mushroom from a tree. Since the film is a meditation on good and evil, the hotel is named appropriately. Aydin, its owner, is a member of the local village’s elite. He inherited the hotel from his father and a number of the rental properties that poor villagers struggle to afford. Despite the reputation of Turkey’s supposedly booming economy and the governing AKP’s charitable beneficence, it had a GINI coefficient in 2012 only 2 points more equitable than El Salvador’s.

In an early scene, Aydin (played by Haluk Bilginer, a veteran of 55 films) is in the front seat of his hotel’s SUV being driven back to the Othello from the nearby village by his driver/desk clerk Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), when out of nowhere a rock crashes into the car’s window nearly forcing it to veer off the road and into a serious accident. The assailant is a young boy who Hidayet pursues and finally captures.

They then take the captive youth back to his meager home, one of Haydin’s rental properties, where they meet his father and uncle and soon learn that the boy threw the rock because the family—5 people crowded into 3 small rooms—has just lost their television to the debt collectors Aydin’s lawyer sicced on them. For the rural poor, a television is one of the few pleasures that they can count on.

Ismail, the boy’s father, is in no position to pay the back rent, let alone the broken window. We will eventually learn that he is an ex-convict who cannot find work. As Aydin and Hidayet are setting down the terms for repairing the broken window, Ismail smashes his fist into his own window and barks at the two men: Now, we are even.

Despite and perhaps because of Aydin’s efforts to remain calm and affect a lofty and patient attitude, Ismail reaches the boiling point and tries to physically attack his landlord and driver until the uncle, a man called Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), separates them. Hamdi is everything that Ismail is not, a perpetually smiling and subservient sort used to bowing before the wealthy and the powerful. A few days after the confrontation, he brings his nephew to the hotel to beg forgiveness and have him kiss Aydin’s right hand, a ritual act in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands. Sick from pneumonia, the boy collapses in the act.

Aydin lives in an aesthetic cocoon as remote from Ismail’s world as the ex-convict is from his. He spends his days in his study writing articles for the local newspaper on the need to “improve” the local village spiritually and ethically. His writings are laced with platitudes and betray a Pecksniffian sense of his own superiority.

There are two women in Aydin’s life, both very much tuned in to his arrogance and sterility. One is his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), just a few years younger than him, and the other is his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who is about half his age and lives in her own quarters at the hotel. In the earliest scenes between Aydin and them, there are signs of friction but barely anticipate the dramatically explosive scenes in which the two confront him over his failings as a human being that are implicitly connected to his class status. Although not a political director/screenwriter in the narrow sense, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is about as clear as one can be on such matters without descending into propaganda.

In much the same way as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, this is a tale about the futility of the lives of the rich and the poor alike. In its monomaniacal determination to preserve its class status, the Aydins of the world are impoverishing themselves spiritually and ethically.

“Winter Sleep” won the prestigious Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on December 19th. Running at over three hours, it is a throwback to the epic films of the 1960s, especially those Marxist films that depicted the same sort of class divisions such as Bertolucci’s “1900”. Among all the films being made today, it is a testament that the Grand Tradition is still alive, even if the terrain has shifted eastward. Ceylan is a gifted dramatist and cinematographer with a unique vision of the crisis we face today in a world that is divided between Aydins and Ismails. Despite its narrow focus on a small group of people, it is a story that reflects the greater drama involving billions today. It is a masterpiece in my opinion, a word I do not use lightly.

May 15, 2014

Aide to Erdogan kicks protester

Filed under: Turkey — louisproyect @ 1:46 pm

afcd292c-5f84-4034-8173-df986d612f35-460x276A protester is kicked by Yusuf Yerkel, an adviser to Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, as Special Forces police officers detain him during a protest against Erdogan’s visit to Soma, Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

March 7, 2014

From Both Sides of the Aegean

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Greece,Turkey — louisproyect @ 12:52 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition March 7-9, 2014

Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean”

In the Wake of the Ottoman Empire

by LOUIS PROYECT

It would be hard to imagine a documentary making more of an impact on the mind, the heart and the eye than Maria Iliou’s “From Both Sides of the Aegean: Expulsion and Exchange of Populations, Turkey-Greece: 1922-1924” that opens at the Quad in New York on March 21.

When I ran into Ms. Iliou before a press screening at the Quad on Tuesday, she described her new film as a follow-up to “Smyrna: the Destruction of a Cosmopolitan City”, a film that I reviewed for CounterPunch almost a year ago.  The first paragraph of that review referred to my personal connection to the terrible tragedy of September 1922:

In my one and only visit to Izmir to meet my wife’s relatives, we walked along the quay to see some of the picturesque city’s landmarks including the statue of Mustafa Kemal that looked toward the sea. My wife’s cousin Ceyda, the daughter of a General assigned to NATO and a rock-ribbed Kemalist, paused in front of the statue to inform me that this was where their war of independence was won. The quay, from which the city’s Greek population was literally driven into the sea, is as important a symbol of that country’s birth in the early 1920s as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia is to an American.

As in the first film, Iliou draws upon a treasure trove of historical photos and film footage, interviews with academic specialists in Greek and Turkish history, and reminiscences of the children and grandchildren who were driven from their homeland both through naked terror and through “legal” decisions made at the top by cynical politicians. Given the pain—both physical and emotional—visited on the Greeks and the Turks, the distinction between illegal and legal becomes moot.

While the film would be of particular interest to someone like myself, it has a universal message for those who cannot but be aware of the toxic after-effects of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims fought to defend statehood claims like vultures fighting over dead meat.

full article

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