The Stoning Of Soraya M.—a review of a modern classical movie

Don’t act like the hypocrite
Who thinks he can conceal his wiles
While loudly quoting the Qur’an
                       ————-Hafez, a 14th century Iranian poet.

A Scene from the Movie

Once a decade, there comes a film that truly redefines the cinematic experience of any non-connoisseur movie-lover. A film that symbolizes art, pain and truth. A film that is able to draw wonders from absolute nothingness.

Persian film-makers are masters at creating such ground-breaking movies. With Separation, Children of Heaven and many other glistening jewels in the world’s film industry, Iran has always been a focal point for extraordinary culture, art and literature. The depth involved in the movies from the land of Omar Khayyam, Maulana Rumi and Hafez really are different from all the other successful movie-industries.

And the Stoning of Soraya M., based on a true incident and a book of the same name, is another work of masterful art and extraordinary depth. Although having an Iranian-American lead actress, an Iranian-American director and a cast ensemble of local Iranians, the film is shot completely in Farsi as per the author and director’s wish. It was filmed within six weeks in a mountainous village of Jordan far from the cities. Based on the true story of Soraya Manutchehri of the Kuhpayeh village in Iran, the film revolves around one scene only—-the final scene of the act of stoning wrongfully—towards which the events in the film go on to designate and portray.

The film starts with an old woman chasing away a dog picking up at bones beside a stream at the break of dawn while simultaneously a car breaks down in her village. The car belongs to a French-Iranian journalist who was passing by the area to get into the borders of a neighboring country. The old woman successfully grabs the attention of the journalist and tells him a story that terrifies each and every one who continues to follow her narration.

Although it is absolutely irrefutable that the film is another modern classic, there are major goofs and errors in the movie. The demonization of Muslims is a characteristic that every form of Western media outlet thrives on, and this film does in fact stereotype Islam negatively to various extents. For example, adultery is an extremely tough crime to punish in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence and Sha’ria Law unless and until the adulterer and adulteress self-proclaims their offence. A minimum of four direct witnesses are required to confirm the act making it an almost near to impossible task to provide full-proof evidence. After all, I am sure no one will commit adultery with open doors in a house full of acquaintances.

It is also mandated that the adulterer,along with the adulteress herself has to be stoned accordingly. The film only shows the female sex stereotyped—-maybe in the real incident only the woman was stoned in accordance with the local, corrupt mullah’s wishes— while the accused adulterer was granted immunity by confessing to the crime and claiming that he was lured into it. It was similar to the case of Aisho Ibrahim Dhuhulow, a 13 year old Somali girl who was stoned to death by Al-Shabab for confessing that she was gang-raped by three Al-Shabab (a notorious Somali terrorist group) militants.

But the theme of the story is that it all happens under the veil of falsehood. Under the patriarchal society that the mullahs are so keen on building up. Under a tyrannous, delinquent husband who is keen to remarry a younger bride but not willing to pay back his wife’s dowry or provide for her and their daughters. Under the veiled society where justice is the most easiest to manipulate and humanity takes a back fold. Under an impression that everything can be justified by saying ‘God is Great’ while in fact God is surely weeping after seeing what his creations are doing in His name. The façade of thought enters the viewer’s mind as soon as he or she starts following the movie and after the violently graphic and extraordinarily filmed stoning scene ends, only the hardest of the hearts could fail to be moved to tears.

It is impossible to deny the claims that stoning in the Islamic world is misused and considered a loophole of the very theocratic justice system that was planned by an Upper Body of Existence. But apparently, the issue of stoning, despite the Western media’s continued portrayal as a barbaric act of a ‘terrorist religion’, is not a part of Islamic heritage only. According to the Torah, Judaism also asks for stoning to death for various offenses such as adultery, cursing God, engaging in idolatry, practicing sorcery and rebellion against parents although it is not practiced by the Jews anymore.
Overall, The Stoning of Soraya M. is one of the best movies from the last decade. Although it is questionable how true the incident upon which the film is based is—since no one actually knows whether the 35 year old Soraya Manutchehri was actually guilty or not and Western reporters who name unnamed sources and continue to demonize Muslims all over the world can hardly be trusted—-the film itself is a pleasure to watch. Although yours truly only managed to have glistening sparks in his eyes, most of the viewers of the movie actually ended up crying after watching it. It really is a powerhouse of a cinema, and even with fully covered woman, little or no background score (no, a serious film like this does not deserve Bollywood-style singing and dancing shots) and an extraordinarily simple story to tell, it gives one more reason to claim that cinema can still be one of the most wonderful forms of art even without the glitz or body-building action figures and sultry heroines.
For those of you who want to check out the movie, here is a torrent link.

The Plight of the Stateless: The Rohingya Diaspora

This article was written in collaboration with Eshpelin Mishtak for umnotablogger.com, a Bangladesh-based e-magazine, to address the recent Rohingya refugee crisis of Bangladesh.

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Photo courtesy: The Daily Star

The photo shows a Rohingya man pleading to officers of the Bangladesh Border Guards to let him and the children and women of the boat to land ashore on Bangladeshi land. The military officers then gave them food, water and fuel, and mandated them to return back to their home from where they had escaped to flee a murderous sectarian violence between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhist Rakhines in the state of Arakan.

Heart-breaking as the photo looks, it clearly symbolizes what the Rohingyas have been going through in Myanmar for decades.

Rohingyas are a particular ethnic tribal group of Myanmar who speak a local dialect of Bengali and are all Muslims. These two reasons make the Myanmar government claim that the Rohingya are actually Bangladeshi immigrants who have settled there when in fact the tribes have existed there for centuries at a time. During the partition of India in 1947 when the British packed all their belongings to leave, the Rohingyas asked Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, to include Arakan in Pakistan (which was formed as a separate state for the Muslims) because of the huge Muslim population prevalent there.

While the Myanmar government persistently claims that Rohingyas are actually Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh government in turn says that they are all

Photos from the conflict

Burmese(people from Myanmar). As a result of this, the government of Myanmar has denied citizenship to the Rohingyas, keeping them widely segregated outside the wider Buddhist communities. They are severely repressed and no family is allowed to have more than two children. Access to their basic human rights such as food, shelter and education are all controlled by the central government. They are not allowed to get posts in the government or in the private sector, and no Muslim minority is allowed to be employed in the police or army.

However despite all these problems the Rohingyas have coexisted peacefully with the Rakhines in Arakan. Most of the youth have crossed the seas and traveled into Malaysia and Thailand, where they work as illegal laborers with no security as the law enforcers there can arrest them off as illegal immigrants. But the majority have moved into the neighboring Muslim-majority state Bangladesh.

Now in Bangladesh, which is already brimming with a huge population of its own with a severe competition for resources, most of these stateless Rohingyas get captured by the Border Guards Bangladesh and are then dumped into the UN refugee camps found in the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. An estimated 30000 Rohingyas live in these camps while the number of Rohingyas present in Bangladesh is actually around 300000. The ones who survive abuse and arrest from the Bangladesh border forces escape into the nearest villages. A significant portion marry off among the Bengali Muslim communities, get a Bangladeshi passport and a national id card and become Bangladeshis for life. A good number use the Bangladeshi passports to go off to the Middle-Eastern countries, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they work as laborers and foreign expatriates.

But recently the plight of the stateless Rohingyas have escalated all of a sudden. When a group of three Rohingya men raped a Buddhist woman, the Buddhist communities fired assaults on the Muslim minorities. A bus carrying Rohingyas was burned down in response to the rape and eventually this fueled into a huge sectarian conflict between the Muslim Rohingyas and the Buddhists. Far from being rational, the state media and the political leaders of the newly-democratic Myanmar launched countless assaults on the Muslims and thus brought about a huge anti-Muslim fever among the apparently peace-loving Buddhists. Houses, shops and businesses were vandalized and openly Muslims were persecuted under the heat of the day by the locals and also the law enforcers. The people dubbed the Muslims as terrorists and compared the violence to that of 9/11 and the Mumbai attacks without having absolutely no knowledge of the events that led to the aforementioned attacks.

The widespread persecution have prompted a diaspora of the Rohingya populace into Bangladesh in boats and fishing trawlers. Now for Bangladesh, this has become much more than a problem. It is quite evident that the government of Myanmar will never accept these Rohingyas back into their land, and there is no way that the government of Bangladesh will be able to accede more people into the already impoverished country. Therefore the best thing that the government decided to do was to strengthen the Bangladesh-Myanmar borders and coerce the incoming Rohingyas back into their land, where they are almost sure to be persecuted by the wider Buddhist communities. This not only violated several international UN laws for refugees—-through which international human rights groups have asked Bangladesh to open up its borders—–but also brought about an ubiquitous dilemma for the Bangladeshis living inside the country. On the one hand, denying the Rohingyas into the land automatically increases the likelihood that they will be persecuted and discriminated against in their own homelands. While on the other hand, Bangladesh happens to be both one of the most populace and poverty-stricken country at the same time.

The decision sparked massive outrage among the public in Dhaka and the rest of the cities. A poll carried out by the Daily Star shows that most of the people want the borders to be opened for the Rohingyas to come in. But the majority of the intellectuals think that Myanmar should solve its own problems. The Rohingya massacre should be stopped no doubt, but Dhaka is unwilling to comply with mounting international pressure to allow the Rohingyas into Bangladesh because of the obnoxious, racially-prejudiced Myanmar government which continues to call the Rohingyas Bengali immigrants.

According to international journalist and Myanmar specialist Francis Wade, more Muslims are being persecuted than reported by the media. This is what he had to say:

“The role of security forces in the violence has also been underreported, which contributes to statements like this one yesterday from an EU spokesperson: “We believe that the security forces are handling this difficult intercommunal violence in an appropriate way.” That does not marry with reports from locals on the ground.
At least four people have told me that police are acting alongside Arakanese in torching homes of Muslims, while several reports have emerged of police opening fire on crowds of Muslims (NB: Muslims are forbidden from entering Burma’s police force or army – this does carry significance when violence is of this nature). An NGO worker said last night that her family friend, a former politician from Sittwe, has been killed after being arrested over the weekend, while AFP reports that a Rohingya shot by Burmese police has died in Bangladesh.
The UN is unlikely to act unless there is clear complicity in the violence by state agents. The trouble is however that with few journalists or observers on the ground, those responsible for the deaths (which could well be in the hundreds by now) are hard to pinpoint. The UN has withdrawn staff from the region, but Human Rights Watch has urged the government to allow observers in.
There also seems to be something of a PR campaign to cast Muslims as those behind the killings (to make clear, Muslim groups are not innocent bystanders, but have also been involved in arson attacks across the state). One such example is the shaving of the heads of dead victims, often Muslims, and dressing them in monks robes – “and they (media) will take photos of this fake monk corpse to show to the world that these dead bodies were murdered by Muslim [sic]”, one source wrote.”

On the other hand, Rohingyas captured by BGB, Bangladeshi Border Guards, tell horrific tales of persecution and abuse by the Buddhists, who are normally perceived as peace loving and gentle. One family reportedly lost a daughter en route to Bangladesh, and were forced to bury her at sea since they could neither go to Myanmar to bury her, nor reach Bangladesh without being pushed back. Reports of robbers/pirates attacking refugee boats are also prevalent, with one boat captured by BGB with no-one but a malnourished new-born inside; supposedly, the elder members could not take him when they jumped out of board in order to save themselves from pirates.

Amidst all of these, the Bangladeshi Government is maintaining a strict policy of not calling them refugees, and nor allowing them entry. The newly formed democratic government of Myanmar agreed on principle, to take back 30,000 registered “non-refugees”, but the project has seen no light since the talks, and it appears that the Bangladeshi government is scared about taking in more of them because of the categorical denial of citizenship of the Rohingyas as Burmese.

In this situation, many Bangladeshis, who are in favor of allowing the Rohingyas to enter Bangladesh, have started publicly supporting the view. Facebook groups have opened up, and many are blogging in support of them. Some categorically suggest invading Myanmar, an improbable idea, while others opt for allowing entry on humanitarian grounds. Bloggers have even asked the widely popular Bangladeshi premiere, Shiekh Hasina, to intervene directly into the matter and not forget that the prime minister herself was given asylum by Germany when her life was in danger back in 1975.

While all decisions rest on the government, the enraged public is patiently waiting to see an end to this massacre. Because this is not only a crisis and a violence that disrupts interfaith and interracial harmony, but also prompts a huge humanitarian crisis for the world. After all, each drop of human blood, regardless of religion, castes and creeds is equally important.

The Jeddah Jazz

As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.

It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to adapt to the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.

“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. But immediately, I was forced to regret.

“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”

With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.

But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.

“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”

I chuckle and coerce myself against roaring into laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away but possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.

“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked in the dark.” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.

“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.

I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.

“Behold: the KingdomTower under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa.”

Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizone. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages. Thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the gigantic Apple adverts substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.

In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.

But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.

As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East, what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.

It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.

But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.

I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.

A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously told me that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis are living here and toiling under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggling amidst desert-storms at night, while the Arabs slept soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and went to the posh shopping malls at night; with their Arab kids being taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by these families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid by the government as well.

I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.

After my chore is done, as I come out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth.

For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.

Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off, because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.

I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze—-a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world—-but under her niqab I thought I could discern a contempt for me.

By then the horizon had already been darkened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars—–a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits, some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.

Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and enquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.

“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“

“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.

“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”

With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.

“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.

“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.

“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”

So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into Al-Baik.

Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.

I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka.

I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.

“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie—What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?

I do not usually write book reviews, unless of course, it is an important assignment or something. But here is a book review  I wrote recently for umnotablogger, a Bangladeshi e-magazine managed by a group of  extremely young, talented and energetic Internet bloggers who have accepted me into their team gladly. Hope all my readers will enjoy this review and also the book itself!

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“There’s more to you, young Haroun Khalifa, than meets the blinking eye.”
Well, what was that supposed to mean? “We used up our full quota of child-stuff in making you,” Rashid explained. “It’s all packed in there, enough for maybe four-five kiddies. Yes, sir, more to you than the blinking eye can see.”

Forget all the controversies surrounding Salman Rushdie. Forget that he has a death warrant on his head from an Iranian Ayatollah (these are real deadly dictator-mullahs I tell you). Forget that he has been living underground for ages for fear of getting murdered. Forget that he is an apostate who loves attention from all quarters.

Forget all this and all thou book-lovers will truly be able to appreciate Salman Rushdie. One of the most talented writers of the English language, Salman Rushdie’s style of writing is any would-be novelist’s dream. There is no denying that this man is perhaps the most celebrated writers of our era of contemporary fiction. His Booker Prize-winning novel, ‘Midnight’s Children’, has been adjudged as the ‘Booker of all Bookers’ in the first 25 years of the award’s history. The subtle blend of humor, sarcasm, pun and the pugnacious imagination that he employs throughout his masterpieces entrance readers of all ages from all generations. And Haroun and the Sea of Stories, standing true to its Salman Rushdie-nature, is another creation par excellence.

Strongly reminiscent of the never-aging tales of the Arabian Nights, Haroun and the Sea of Stories is any storyteller’s fantasy. And this time it’s the Sea of Stories that captivates the reader. Rushdie’s penchant for storytelling is doubtlessly uncanny—something for which he has always been dawned as a revolutionary writer in the world of fiction— but what mesmerizes me about the novel, as a reader, is the ease with which the story unfolds. The language takes you back in time; back to your childhood when you used to read all those didactic tales and repertoires of love, deceit, adventure etc etc etc that taught you about morality and installed your values. But here in this simple storyline, lies one of the greatest virtues of fiction—a moving, heart-warming story. Everything in this book is a direct product of the writers’ imagination; far away from most other works of contemporary fiction. But the magical realism in the tale makes you somehow addicted to it. It is not the story itself that attracts the reader but the Rushdie-style pun, humor and imagination. After reading it, for some time, most other novels will seem totally bland to you. Such is the power of Rushdie’s masterful prose.

Rainwater dripped onto the note from Haroun’s hair. “What to do son,” Rashid pleaded piteously. “Storytelling is the only work I know.”
When he heard his father sounding so pathetic, Haroun lost his temper and shouted: “What’s the point of it? What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

Unlike all those reviews over the Internet which destroy the reader’s interest in turning the pages of the books reviewed, I will dissent by refraining from spilling much of the beans from the book. But since I do know that you want to know whether the story is of your type or not, I will say something about the plot.

Haroun is the son of Rashid Khalifa, a famed storyteller in a weird land where the names of the cities are all in alphabets (weird eh?). So this one day, when it is raining beautifully across the barren city, Haroun comes back home from school to find his father crying—-his mother had just eloped with their neighbor after finding her husband’s storytelling profession tiresome, bitter and taunting. And from that moment of loss onwards, Rashid Khalifa, the most amazing storyteller in the world, loses his art of storytelling all of a sudden. He is unable to fashion out absolutely any story from his inherent sea of stories. And when the young Haroun Khalifa questions him about this out of the blue incompetence, he replies enigmatically that his Sea of Stories is not being replenished by the Water Genie.

Thus the young Haroun makes a journey to Kahani, the land of stories in order to request the authorities to start supplanting his father’s sea of stories. And hence weaves a great tale of adventure and devotion, and most spectacularly: imagination. But now I will stop right here with the plot. Read the entire book to find out the adventures of Haroun. I am sure you will like it!

“My fault again,” Haroun thought wretchedly. “I started all this off. What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true. I asked that question and it broke my father’s heart. So it’s up to me to put things right. Something has to be done.”
The only trouble was, he couldn’t think of a single thing.

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