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The Emperor

Posted by Wild Musette editor on

The Emperor

by Gershon Ben-Avraham

 

A harp was placed over the bed of David,

and when midnight arrived a north wind used to blow in it,

so that the harp would play by itself and awake David…

— Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 3b

 

I have seen only one photograph of the Emperor. To my knowledge, it is the only one that exists. It was in a house in the Old City of Beersheba, Israel. The Emperor’s pale blond body stood out, even in that old, faded, black and white photo. Though not dated, it is possible to  determine approximately when it was taken. For instance, all the men in the picture are wearing World War Two American military uniforms. We know that David Geiger, shown holding the Emperor in the picture, joined the Army in December 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor. He would not have completed basic training until early 1942. Also, the insignia of the 361st Infantry Regimental Band appears several places in the photo. Regimental bands were abolished in 1943, and their personnel combined to create divisional bands. So it is reasonable to assume that the picture was taken in 1942, or in 1943 at the latest. The Emperor would have been seven or eight years old.

My name is Max Holland. I am a matchmaker, not one of the usual kind, however, the kind who brings men and women together for romantic purposes. What I do, rather, is bring musicians and instruments together for musical purposes. In the lives of many serious musicians, professional or amateur, there sometimes comes a time when they feel that they have outgrown their instrument. It is not because there is some mechanical deficiency in it. On the contrary, usually these musicians already own fine instruments. It’s just that they have come to believe that something vital is missing in their playing. Asked to describe what they think is missing, what is needed, he or she will speak vaguely about a partner, for example, or an instrument with a distinct character, a kind of helpmate, a soul mate, if you will. It should come as no surprise that this type of instrument is not found in an ordinary music store. It is rare, usually expensive, and often difficult to locate. I make my living finding them.

A few years ago, a young man named Ricky Searles came to my office in Philadelphia. He was a bluesman, a guitarist, who lived and worked in Mobile. He was skinny, kinetic, and pale. When he had called to make an appointment, I had asked him to bring his guitar with him; I wanted to hear him play. To hear him play would help me to get an understanding of what he might be looking for. After listening to him play, and asking him a few questions, I asked him if he had ever heard of David Geiger. He put his hands together, looked at the ceiling briefly, rolled his thumbs one over the other, then looked back at me.

“No. Can’t say that I have.”

“Then I would like you to hear something.”

I walked to a storage cabinet, took out an old reel-to-reel tape, and mounted it on my player. The tape started with a lot of noise, glasses clinking, indistinct conversation, people laughing; but then Geiger started playing. He was playing a standard, simple, three-chord blues. There were some others with him, a rhythm guitar, a bass, drums, and a tenor sax. The tempo was slow, pulsing, primal. The music seemed to come from a place in Geiger where most people don’t even have places, from a wound so deep that most people would not have survived it, and it pulled you to where he was. It hurt, almost too much to hear it. When it finished, I waited a few moments before speaking.

“That,” I said, “was Geiger at a jam session at a club in Chicago in 1937, the kind of session where musicians get together after their paid gigs to play for each other. He was twenty-one years old. He was playing a 1935 Epiphone Emperor.”

“An Epiphone? Really? That’s hard to believe.”

“Well, maybe the only ones you’ve ever heard were not made by Epiphone, or played by Geiger.”

I opened a desk drawer, took out a folder, removed some photos from it and handed them to Searles.

“These are stock photos of a 1935 Emperor. Look at them carefully. Notice that the Emperor’s front and back are arched, like a violin’s. It has a moveable, adjustable bridge, and the f-holes are like the ones you find in classical stringed instruments, violins, violas, cellos, basses. The Emperor was made for one purpose—music. It was Geiger’s instrument of choice.”

“Do you know what happened to it, to Geiger’s Emperor?”

“Not yet; but if you think you might be interested, I can try to find out.”

“I’m interested.”

“Good. See my secretary on your way out. She’ll take the necessary information from you, and let you know what happens next.”

I started the next morning. It did not take long to find Geiger’s obituary. He had died at the age of fifty-nine in Jackson, Mississippi in 1976. The obituary spoke of his work as a civil engineer with the Mississippi State Highway Department. Only near the end was there any reference to his having been a musician. It said simply, “Before moving to Mississippi, Geiger worked as a musician in Chicago in the 1930s.”

It was not difficult to imagine what had happened. Geiger, like other men returning from the war, would have come home to a world radically different from the one he had left. Friends had died. Connections were broken. Old acquaintances had moved on. And like other returnees, Geiger himself would have undergone significant changes. He came home a stranger. Chicago had changed; music had changed. During the war, like other men, he would have seen a great deal of destruction. Like them, what he wanted to do after the war, more than anything else, was to get on with his life, to get married, to have children. He became an engineer; music became a memory.

The obituary listed Geiger’s survivors—a wife, son, and daughter. With a little more searching I found his wife’s obituary. She had remarried and moved to California where she had died in 1993. The two children were again listed as survivors. I was unable to find any information on Geiger’s son, Sol; but his daughter, Linda Bowlin, her married name, was living in Atlanta. I called her, told her I was a freelance journalist working on an article about her father’s music career, and asked if I could meet with her. She told me that she didn’t think she would be much help. Her mother had been Geiger’s second wife. His first wife had divorced him during the war. When he married her mother, Linda explained, her father was no longer in music. I told her I understood, but would still like to meet with her, that I thought it would be helpful. She agreed. The following week I flew to Atlanta.

Linda Bowlin was the perfect Southern woman. Every hair was in place, her makeup impeccable, and there was a faint scent of fresh citrus about her. She spoke softly with beautiful rounded vowels. We sat in her sun porch, sipping tea, and eating orange cake.

“Please tell me again, Mr. Holland,” she said, “why you are interested in my father.”

“Sure. I am a freelance writer. Recently I came across a reference to your father in something I was reading. It intrigued me, and I thought he might be a good subject to write about.”

“Well, as I told you on the phone, I’m not sure how much help I’ll be. My mother was Dad’s second wife. When I was growing up, Dad worked as an engineer. I don’t want to mislead you though. It’s not that he never played. We always had a music room wherever we lived, and every so often Dad would go in, shut the door, and play, sometimes for hours. Once, after one of these long sessions, I asked him why he did it. He said only that it made him feel better. So he did play, Mr. Holland. It’s just that I don’t know much about it.”

“Mrs. Bowlin, I understand, and appreciate very much your taking the time to meet with me.”

I looked down at my notebook.

“Oh,” I said. “I do have one other question. It’s about your father’s guitar. Do you know what happened to it?”

She paused before answering.

“Mr. Holland, can I trust you?”

“Of course,” I said.

She cocked her head to one side and looked at me.

“Pinky swear?”

“Pinky swear.”

“My father died without a will, and with many bills. My brother Sol stepped in and shielded mom from a host of creditors. With two families, you can imagine it was kind of messy. In the end, my brother had to buy my father’s guitar from the estate, whatever that means. I don’t know much about legal things. My brother has the guitar.”

“Sol? I was not able to find…”

“Anything about him. Right?”

“Right.”

“That’s because it’s not his name, at least not anymore. You did say I could trust you. I’m counting on that.”

She paused as if to gather her thoughts before continuing.

“Sol stayed with us right after Dad died. The night after the funeral, I was awakened in the middle of the night by what sounded like music, a strange kind of music, soft, feathery. It was coming from Sol’s room. I knocked, but there was no answer. I pushed the door open. Sol was standing by an open window, holding Dad’s guitar towards the window with an ear pressed against the back of it. The night wind was causing the strings to vibrate in an eerie sort of way. That was what I had heard. Sol didn’t notice me. I didn’t say anything. I just backed out of the room. The next morning, after breakfast, Sol packed a suitcase, took Dad’s guitar, and left. I didn’t hear from him for several weeks. Then a letter arrived from Chicago. In it, Sol told me he was studying…for conversion.”

“Conversion?”

“To Judaism. You see, my father was Jewish, my mother Catholic. Sol and I were brought up Catholic. After Dad’s death, Sol got interested in Judaism. I understand that, I think. It didn’t take him long, however, to find out that, according to Judaism, at least according to Orthodox Judaism, he wasn’t considered a Jew. He desperately wanted to fix that. And so he did. He converted, changed his name, married a Jewish woman, and four years later he and his wife moved to Israel. I haven’t seen him since.”

“That must be difficult.”

“Yes. It is.”

“Do you think your brother would be willing to meet with me?”

“No, not really.”

“Mrs. Bowlin, I would very much like to meet with your brother. Can you at least tell me where he is?”

She smiled.

“If I give you his name, his new name, and address, you have to promise me something.”

“OK.”

“You won’t tell him I told you. Promise?”

“Promise.”

“There’s one other thing, a suggestion. Don’t let him know you’re coming. Just show up at his house unannounced.”

She wrote down the information and handed it to me. “Good luck,” she said. “It’s been a pleasure.”

“Thank you.”

In the car I looked at the note. There was a street address in Beersheba, Israel, and the name “Shlomo Ben-David.”

Back in Philadelphia, I called Ricky Searles and told him to send me his best recording. Three days later, I flew to Israel.

I had been to Beersheba previously, while working for a client in the Beersheba Professional Chamber Ensemble. It was then that I picked up enough basic Hebrew to get around, English not being nearly as common in Beersheba as in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Ben-David lived in a renovated British Mandate era house in the Old City. It was a large house, situated on a corner. It was made of rectangular dust-colored stone blocks and had a red tiled roof. A low wall, built of the same blocks as the house, and topped with a wrought iron fence, surrounded the front yard. I passed through the gate, which was open, into a yard with a well-kept flower garden. A patterned brick walkway shaded by palm trees led to the front door. Large arched windows with dark green wooden shutters flanked the door. I knocked.

A young woman opened the door. In my heavily American accented Hebrew, I introduced myself and asked if Mr. Ben-David was home. The woman smiled, and replied in perfect English, “You may use English. Please wait here.” She did not completely close the door, but closed it enough so that I could not see the interior of the house. It was opened again by an attractive middle-aged woman. She had beautiful blue eyes, a shade of blue I had never seen in eyes before. She was wearing a light pink blouse, and a patterned skirt. Instead of the scarf one frequently sees worn by Orthodox Jewish women, she was wearing a light blue knitted cap decorated with white sequins. Hints of her auburn hair escaped the confines of the cap.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“I hope so. My name is Max Holland. I would like to speak with Mr. Ben-David, if possible.”

“My husband is busy at the moment. Perhaps I can help you.”

“Well, I am a journalist working on an article about Mr. Ben-David’s father. I was hoping…”

“His father?“

“Yes.”

”Please, come in.” Turning to the young woman who had first opened the door, she said, “Rina, please show Mr. Holland to the patio.”

The house was dark and cool inside. We walked down a long hallway to a sliding glass door. The young woman opened it and we walked out onto a patio at the back of the house. There was a round white metal table with a glass top and four chairs. An umbrella shaded the table.

“Please have a seat. Would you like something to drink?”

“A glass of water would be much appreciated.”

The patio was located in the backyard. A wall higher than the one in the front surrounded the yard. There was an abundance of flowers and trees. A large stone birdbath stood in the center of the yard. Bird feeders hung from several of the trees, and the air was filled with the singing of a variety of birds.

The woman returned with a pitcher of water and two glasses. She placed them on the table, then left. In a few minutes I heard the glass door being opened, and turned to see a tall thin man wearing a black skullcap and a long black coat.

“Good morning,” I said, rising.

“Good morning. Please, be seated. My wife tells me that you would like to speak to me about my father?”

“Yes. My name is Max Holland. I am a freelance writer and recently came across an article that referred to your father’s work as a musician in Chicago in the 1930s. It seemed as though your father would be an interesting man to write about.”

The man did not acknowledge what I had said.

“How did you find me?” he asked.

Even though Linda Bowlin had warned me, the directness of the question took me by surprise.

“Excuse me?”

“How did you find me?” he repeated.

“Oh…one of the research analysts for the magazine to which I pitched the article found your address for me.”

It was clear that Ben-David did not believe me; but he decided, much to my relief, to ignore it.

“There is not a lot to tell,” he said. “My father did not work as a musician when I was growing up. He was an engineer. He played only occasionally. Sorry, but I am not going to be any help to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

He rose. I remained seated.

“I’m sorry Mr. Ben-David. I have been less than forthright. I apologize. What I would really like to speak to you about is the Emperor.”

He sat down.

“The Emperor? What about it?” he asked.

“There is a young bluesman in the States who is very interested in buying your father’s guitar.”

“My father’s guitar is not for sale.”

“The young man who wants to buy the Emperor is named Ricky Searles. He is a bluesman, like your father was, and a very gifted one. In his hands the Emperor would do again exactly what it was meant to do, what your father did with it—make music, make incredible music.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but as I said, my father’s guitar is not for sale.”

“Look…I asked Searles to make a recording of his playing. I have brought it with me. Will you at least do me the favor of listening to it before making up your mind? Please…I’ve come a long way.”

I placed the recording on the table. Ben-David sat silently for a few moments. Finally he picked up the recording.

“Come with me,” he said.

We went inside. He took me to the second floor of the house. We entered a large room. Its walls were pale blue. Blue and white patterned tile covered the floor. The ceiling was white and in its center was a round domed skylight. I felt as though I had stepped into a painting by Vermeer. Paintings with musical themes lined the walls. On one of the walls, however, hung a single photograph in a simple wooden frame. It was a picture of David Geiger in military uniform holding the Emperor.

Ben-David had me take a seat on a curved sofa in the middle of the room. He put the recording in a player in a corner cabinet. Speakers of various sizes were located in the room’s ceiling. He sat down beside me. When the music began, he closed his eyes. I watched him. His face was dispassionate, his body perfectly still. When the piece finished, he rose, took the recording out of the player, and handed it to me.

“Thank you Mr. Holland,” he said. “My father’s guitar is not for sale.”

He walked me to the head of the stairs and called the young woman.

“Rina, please show Mr. Holland out.”

Back at the hotel, I called Ricky Searles to let him know that the Emperor was not available. He was disappointed. He had already envisioned himself playing it. I, on the other hand, accustomed to this kind of disappointment, assured him that we would find him a suitable instrument elsewhere.

A few months after my failed attempt to obtain the Emperor, I was browsing an industry newsletter in my office when I came across an article that got my attention.

BSCM News - First David Geiger Scholarship in Guitar to be Awarded

The Boston School of Contemporary Music invites interested members of the public to join faculty, students, and alumni for the 27th Annual BSCM Scholarship Dinner to be held Thursday, October 29th at the Davidson Conference Center located on the school’s main campus. The dinner supports scholarships for qualified minority students underrepresented in the school’s student body. A highlight of this year’s dinner will be the awarding of the first “David Geiger Scholarship in Guitar.” The scholarship was established by the Ben-David family of Beersheba, Israel, in memory of Shlomo Ben-David’s late father, David Geiger, a prominent bluesman active in Chicago in the 1930s. Mrs. Rachel Ben-David will be the guest speaker. Additional information can be found on the school’s web site.

I asked my secretary to get me a reservation for the dinner as well as a ticket on the Acela Express to Boston for the date of the dinner.

The dinner was held in a large banquet hall on the school’s campus in the heart of Boston. A variety of people were in attendance, members of the school’s board of directors, faculty members, alumni, students, and several prominent musicians. Following the dinner, Mrs. Ben-David spoke. It took a few moments for me to realize that she was speaking of Shlomo Ben-David in the past tense. I was confused at first, thinking that she had been speaking of David Geiger, but then understood that she was speaking about her husband. She spoke of his great love of music. She described a monograph he had written shortly after their move to Israel about non-liturgical music in the Second Temple period. She told how he helped fund the Music Academy in Beersheba, and was a principal donor of the Beersheba Professional Chamber Ensemble. He was also an avid amateur pianist—something I never suspected. Considering what I knew, or thought I knew, about Orthodox Jews, Shlomo Ben-David was certainly an enigma. She spoke briefly of her husband’s death from pancreatic cancer, less than three months after I had seen him. She said that it was during his illness that he and she had worked on the details of the scholarship in his father’s memory. She concluded by saying that she was happy to be able to end on a positive note, something her husband would have appreciated. She then announced the first recipient of the David Geiger Memorial Scholarship in guitar, a young woman from the South Side of Chicago, the youngest of six children in a family of Ethiopian immigrants.

After dinner, I stood in the reception line to greet the young scholarship winner, who was standing with Mrs. Ben-David. I congratulated the young woman and then turned to Mrs. Ben-David.

“I am so sorry to learn of the death of your husband. You probably don’t remember me, but…”

“Of course I remember you Mr. Holland. Thank you for your condolences. My husband will be missed by many people. On a brighter note, it’s good to see you again. By the way, were you successful in finding a guitar for your client?”

“How did you know?”

“Oh, female intuition.”

“Well, yes, I did. Thank you.”

“Good. So then you’re no longer interested in the Emperor, right?”

I smiled.

“Well, sometimes it turns out that the hunter falls in love with the hunted. I am afraid that it’s happened to me. It’s a risk one takes. Would it be possible for us to speak privately?”

“Yes, I think so. Just let me finish here. We should be done shortly.”

A half-hour later we were sitting at one of the dining tables in the banquet hall.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, and please forgive my being so direct,” I began, “but do you still have the Emperor?”

“I don’t mind your asking. I don’t have the Emperor. Soon after you left us, Shlomo told me he wanted to take a trip up north, alone. He took the Emperor with him. He returned without it.”

“Really? Do you have any idea what he might have done with it?”

“No, unfortunately. The Emperor was very special to Shlomo. It was one of the few things we didn’t talk about. Concerning the trip, the only thing he told me was that he planned to stay with friends of ours in Moreshet, and would be visiting a man in the Golan Heights, in Majdal Shams. Shlomo was interested in the music of the Druze. He was working on a paper on the influence of music in the religious life of Druze communities. Unfortunately, he died before he finished it.”

“Mrs. Ben-David, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I appreciate it. Just one last thing, if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind sending me a copy of the draft of Mr. Ben-David’s paper on the music of the Druze? I would love to read it.”

“Certainly. It’s no trouble. You will need to wait though, until I return to Israel. The draft is on Shlomo’s computer. I’ll also need your email address.”

A few days later, I received an email from Rachel Ben-David with the draft of her husband’s paper attached. In the email she told me she believed that the man in Majdal Shams with whom Shlomo had had an appointment was named Sa’id Maher.

I rented a car at Ben-Gurion. The trip to Majdal Shams would take about three hours. Majdal Shams is the largest of four Druze towns located in the Golan Heights. I arrived in the middle of the afternoon. When I checked into my hotel, I asked the front desk clerk if he might be able to assist me in finding a man named Sa’id Maher. I told him that I was working on an article about Druze music and that a friend had given me Maher’s name as a good resource. He told me he would see what he could do, and that he would call me when he had any information.

I was awakened from a nap by the ringing of the room phone. It was the desk clerk. He had been able to contact Mr. Maher and gave me a phone number at which I could reach him. I called Maher and introduced myself. We agreed to meet for breakfast in the hotel’s breakfast room the next morning.

The hotel served a hearty breakfast. After it, in the hotel’s sunroom, we talked over coffee. I brought up Ben-David.

“You know Mr. Ben-David?” he asked.

“I did. Perhaps you don’t know, but Mr. Ben-David died shortly after the last time he met with you, I believe.”

“To God we belong, and to Him we shall return. I didn’t know. I am sorry to learn this. I must say, however, that I am not surprised. When I saw him last, he had the yellow skin of one who sits and waits for death.”

“His widow gave me a copy of a paper he was working on when he died. I believe you may be familiar with it.”

I passed a copy of Ben-David’s paper across the table. Maher looked at it, flipped through several pages of it, then smiled.

“Yes. I am familiar with it. Lots of English here. I will need to ask my grandson to help me read it. I speak English well enough, but reading it, well that’s different. My grandson, he is good with English. He learned it in school.” He paused. “He was an extraordinary man, Mr. Ben-David. His understanding of our music was remarkable. I once told him that in some former life he must have been Druze. He liked that.”

“Mr. Maher, there is something else I would like to ask you about. I hope you don’t mind.”

I opened a folder I had brought, took out a photo of a 1935 Epiphone Emperor, and passed it across the table.

“Have you ever seen a guitar like this one?”

He looked at the photo, then back at me.

“Why do you ask?”

I could tell he was thinking, wondering if he could trust this American, this man he had just met.

“I know a little about it, and would love to see it,” I said.

He was silent for some time. At last he looked at me with eyes that seemed to read my soul.

“Yes. I have seen one very like it, and tonight, if you like, you shall be my dinner guest, and you too shall see the one I have seen. But more than this, you shall hear it. And when you hear it…ah! I can’t tell you.”

I agreed to meet him in the lobby at nine that evening.

We walked out of the hotel lobby into the cool mountain air of Majdal Shams. Along the way, Maher asked me if I was familiar with the singer Asmahan. I confessed that I was not.

“She was, in my opinion, the greatest Arab Druze singer. Though she used some of your Western performance techniques in her singing, she did it without ever losing the unique character of our music. I mention her because you will hear her tonight, singing through metal and wood.”

We walked the rest of the way in silence with me puzzling over the meaning of Maher’s words. We turned off the main street into a side street, and from that one into yet another. We stopped in front of a stone building with an arched doorway. We could hear music even before entering. We sat at a corner table. Maher ordered for both of us. The music being performed was pleasant, but did not strike me as in any way out of the ordinary. When we finished our meal, we sat in silence over our teas. Suddenly the restaurant, which had been very noisy, grew quiet. A distinguished looking elderly man with a thick gray mustache walked to the stage and began speaking.

Maher leaned toward me and whispered, “He is announcing what we have come for, Dawud ibn Yassa.”

The announcer finished and walked away. Four musicians entered and moved to the back half of the stage. Two held rebabas, simple bowed string instruments, one a kind of flute called a zurna, and one sat before a single drum, a dahola. A white cushion was carried out and placed near the front of the stage. The lights were dimmed. Only a pale blue light shone directly over the spot where the pillow had been placed.

A boy emerged from the dark on the left of the stage. He could not have been more than fourteen or fifteen years old. He wore the freshness of youth, and moved with the elegance and grace of a dancer. He sat down on the cushion, crossed his legs, and placed his hands on his knees. A man brought him the Emperor. He took it carefully, and positioned it in his lap as the other musicians began a slow pulsing vamp. Then the boy started playing. I did not know the piece he played. Later, Maher told me it was “Dakhalt Marra fi Jenina” and translated the title for me, “I Once Entered a Garden.”

I have heard a lot of music in my life. But never before, and never since, have I heard music like what I heard that night. It was as if the ethereal beauty of a woman’s voice had entered ibn Yassa’s hands, moved through his fingers, and sang in the metal and wood of the Emperor. I closed my eyes. Ibn Yassa carried me from a table in Majdal Shams to a garden awash with the scent of flowers and the songs of birds. I never wanted to leave it. Then, unexpectedly, something cold and evil slipped into the room. I felt the agony, the searing pain, of a lover abandoned by his beloved. The pain mounted, growing greater and greater, until it became unbearable. Then, mercifully, the music stopped. I felt as I can only imagine an invalid must feel, when, after a long and painful illness, death comes at last and releases his soul from its earthly shell. I opened my eyes, and looked at Maher. Maher placed one of his hands over mine and looked at me.

“Now,” he asked, “would you like to see the Emperor?”

“No…No. Thank you. I…I don’t need to.”

We walked back to the hotel in the silence of the night accompanied by the sparkling purity of the stars as they can be seen only in the mountains. As we walked in the cold night air, I thought of David Geiger, of Shlomo Ben-David, of Ricky Searles, and of an amazing boy named Dawud ibn Yassa. The next morning, I returned to America.

About a month after my return from Israel, I received a package at my office in Philadelphia. It was from Rachel Ben-David. She had included a note.

Dear Mr. Holland,

Beersheba was my husband’s favorite city in the world. It is not the same here without him. In June, I will be moving to an apartment in Jerusalem. It is much smaller than our home here. While going through our things in preparation for the move, I came across something I thought you might like to have.

Best wishes,

Rachel Ben-David

I opened the package. Inside was the picture of the Emperor.

 


headshotGershon Ben-Avraham grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and currently lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel. His story, “Grandma’s Postcard,” was published in the Winter/Spring 2016 edition of Steel Toe Review. His story, “The Janitor,” was published in Issue 18 of Jewish Fiction .net, in September, 2016. When not writing, Gershon can be found walking his collie, Kulfi, in one of the many parks in Be’er Sheva.


 

 


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