Cross Cultural

Lived lots of years in foreign countries–foreign cultures.

Cross-cultural are experiences in which I have been face-to-face with people and behaviours I did not understand and often did not agree.

…as opposed to multi-cultural which is theory only.

In my work as a landscape architect in those foreign countries and foreign cultures, I had to build major projects. Had to reach workable agreements in difficult cross-cultural conditions. Learned so very much from so many different people.

The links below track some of my cross-cultural journeys.

They are all HD, all less than one minute long, and they are all growing from the Empty Quarter, the Rub al Khali.

ArabiaFelix

Rub al Khali Enigma: the Empty Quarter in the Arabian Peninsula, what it is.

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Atlantis

Dreams: how to get from dreams to fiction to reality, Atlantis Dubai 2008.

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Qasr

Empty Quarter: transforming cross-cultural realties, harsh environments into restful shelter, Qasr al Sarab 2010.

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GolfAcademy

A Golf Academy in the Empty Quarter?

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Maps: Moths to Fire


…or…mystique richesse?

Is mystique the Empty Quarter landscape magnet for Western culture? If so, then how…why?

How could a place, a landscape where cultures of India and Africa have interlaced for millennia be…empty?

How can there be an Arabian Peninsula landscape virtually untouched by Islam these last 1400 Hegira years?

And before Islam, how in the Empty Quarter can there be long lost whisperings…mystical names…unwritten sagas…still emerging from those sands…

But is this Empty Quarter mystique nothing more than a moth to fire?

For me it is unimaginable how non-Muslim foreigners came in search of this landscape…a foreign land…a foreign culture…a foreign religion…a foreign language…what to speak of…NO GPS…NO TELECOM…NO WEATHER REPORTS…

Everytime I think about our ‘modern technological tethers’, the real time information resources to which we are all accustomed, I am amazed by the strength and will power of these earlier explorers…and that gives their writing all the more gravitas.

The Last Kilometer

…don't fight it…

Erik Chalmers, American born and bred professional landscape architect, used all his skills to manage these very large, complex iconic projects in the Arabian Peninsula. He knew that the multi-cultural and technical complexities required not simply a left side of the brain number crunching iron will; but they also required what he called…performance art.

What is the magic–what are the skills required to succeed on these huge complex projects being designed and built in such challenging and downright dangerous environments? Erik Chalmers’ post project notes give insight into his successes.

But Erik Chalmers, for the first time in decades on an assignment without his wife Madge, was about to learn if he had done one project too many and lost his one true emotional certainty, his one true root.

…it is…

Chalmers felt what he had missed over the past eight months–the fullness of the water, the plants, the soil, the wholeness–it was holistic, it was an existential comfort.

Following is a short narrative from Chapter 13: Pilgrimage, that imparts some of the landscape connections in The 23 Club.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage

               The Last Kilometer

Chalmers was returning after eight months on his own. Nobody in the UAE called him Erik. It had been eight months of Chalmers. Eight months of taking care of his own meals, his own shopping, his own laundry. It was the little stuff that informed his daily life culture. It was the little stuff that built up…big time.

As the train took Chalmers closer to his stop, his thoughts turned to Madge. He was returning to his shared spaces, his shared life. Chalmers was becoming Erik again. He missed Madge; but he was uncertain how this return would be. Long distance communications always filtered, always blurred emotions.

Chalmers recalled the worst of his time away…he had not been able to hide his week in the hospital from Madge. He was supposed to have gone to Singapore for silk; but her worst fear came true. He had been injured in an automobile accident and hospitalized. She suffered to hear about it from distance. Sorry just did not cover it…from either side.

He arrived at Lauterbrunnen and thought, it won’t be long now.

He transferred from the train to the funicular. It was late in the afternoon and the sky was overcast. This time of year there was little difference between the valley village and the small plateau up where he and Madge lived. Fall plants were already naked of leaves. The first big snow could come any day. The temperature 5ºC or below; frost threatened.

As the funicular rose, Chalmers recalled his excitement nearly nine months ago when he was asked to help fix the first five star resort destination deep in the Empty Quarter. It had been about the challenge. It had been about his joy in providing beautiful gardens for people.

Now the job was complete. The gardens were a success. The owner was satisfied, happy. That world was finished. Now he was home.

And he was worried. Had he traded off something of emotion and trust, something he had held closely with Madge, just to build a couple gardens?

  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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The Press

…water is life…

Rarely does dew manifest itself in the Empty Quarter. Trying to get water from dew in the Empty Quarter is like trying to get truth, or even certifiable facts from the ‘Press’–anywhere in the world.

…East or West or…

The English ‘Press’ in the Gulf Region is suffused with people from so many different countries and cultures, each trying to make a difference, each trying to earn a living, all overlaid with the moral fabric and traditions of the Region–it is filled with strange combinations of ambiguity and things that should not be said–and things that must be said.

Newspapers are newspapers, right? Hard copy or digital, right? Buried in each country’s news media are cultural clues waiting to be discovered, waiting to be puzzled out. How else can you understand these words from Saheeh Al Bukhaaree: ‘Whoever has seven Ajwat Al Madinah dates every morning, he will not be harmed that day by poison or magic.’

Following is a short narrative piece from Chapter 12: Long and Short, to impart some of the landscape feeling of The 23 Club.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf Region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short

               The Press

Mid-December 2010, and Chalmers had just settled down into his business class seat on his flight back home. With a certain trepidation, he was looking forward to Christmas in the mountains with Madge. As he sat down, he couldn’t tell which troubled him more, the stiffness in his back from the automobile accident, or the mental and physical weariness of eight months, everyday in the Empty Quarter, under the relentless sun, cajoling, arm twisting everyone on the team, or…the uncertainty of seeing Madge for the first time in eight months.

Liwa Qsar was completed, even without Theuns. The project had made headlines in the press numerous times–good and bad. Nevertheless, the Liwa Qsar project opened on schedule. The soft opening was 2 October, and the official grand opening was 1 December. It was grueling. It was accomplished, another project under his belt. But, by Chalmers’ point of view, the Empty Quarter, being what it was, could never be considered conquered by this project, or by any project. Even after eight months living and working every day in the Empty Quarter, Chalmers found it too large, too old, too unapproachable, and too unknown.

Chalmers lived on site for the first three months before relocating to Abu Dhabi for the rest of the project. He couldn’t live 24/7 in the heart of the Empty Quarter. He needed to get to the water’s edge–to the city. He needed a certain kind of human space–space the Empty Quarter denied to him. So, he commuted to and from the site every day.

Despite the successful project, his Empty Quarter experience had been one of strange, impending suffocation. The Rub al Khali was always trying to take something from him, trying to constrain something that should not be constrained. He couldn’t really put his finger on it.

  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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Sustainable Rimal

The open forum of majlis functions from small groups of close friends, up to and including the largest groups of people speaking directly to the rulers of each Emirate where anyone can speak with the ruler at majlis. It is relaxed as is traditional at majlis--relaxed as the four Emiratis in the above image--note that three of them are wearing aqal headresses and one is wearing a hamdaneya headress.

The open forum of majlis functions from small groups of close friends, up to and including the largest groups of people speaking directly to the rulers of each Emirate where anyone can speak with the ruler at majlis. It is relaxed as is traditional at majlis–relaxed as the four Emiratis in the above image–note that three of them are wearing aqal headresses and one is wearing a hamdaneya headress.

Erik Chalmers, Jean-Claude Thibaut and Theuns van der Walt share a social night of conversation over dinner and televised football with a small group of Emiratis who have a special interest in the Liwa Qsar Project under construction in the Empty Quarter.

Following is a short part from Chapter 11: Villa Majlis to impart some of the landscape feeling of The 23 Club.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis

               Sustainable Rimal

What happens when popular jargon meets a larger than life, a larger than time landscape? What is sustainable about something that is ‘always shifting’  Or, rather, is ‘always shifting’ the most fundamental component of sustainability? Is sustainable larger than time, is it larger than eternity? Ha!! The more attention paid to popular jargon, the more folly suffered!

Fairuz, an Emirati from Liwa Oasis taking personal interest in the Liwa Qsar project, Jean-Claude, the Belgian Ethnobotanist, and Erik Chalmers had much in common. They shared interest, yet with varied perspectives, on the sands (rimal) and on the Bedu life style.

They sat down together. Fairuz asked for dates and kaouwa, Arabic coffee, which was then roasted, ground and prepared on a side table next to him. Chalmers and Jean-Claude joined him. Traditionally taken in restrained amount, kaouwa and dates were a sweet, soft, tender, buttery, room temperature date washed down with a thimble full of the hottest, bitterest, freshly brewed, cardamom and clove flavored coffee.

Following the kaouwa, Chalmers took the opportunity to explore a topic which had been on his mind since hearing Kelvin Isley the other day describe his experience of an almost unearthly, powerful rhythm of the heat emanating from the sands. He drew on Thesiger’s recognition of the exceptionally strong power of the sands. Thesiger had observed in the Bedu, people intensely occupied with the sands, they never commented on the beauty of the sands, the sky, the night, or the sunset.

Chalmers asked, “In books from both before, and, since the coming of Islam, I have read that djinni, spirits, have resided as unusual forces in the sands. Fairuz, I’m curious, is there anything about the djinni in the sands that could be a good reference for landscape architects these days, sustainability, or otherwise?”

Jean-Claude listened carefully to the question and internally put it into a larger context. He could see the desire among certain social groups for sustainability as a desire for secular eternality, a contemporary replacement for the stability traditionally supplied by religions. As far as he was concerned it was short sighted, a passing fad, ignorant of powers greater than the human mind and intelligence, ignorant of the powers that moved the sands, that put the sands in place. But, at the same time Jean-Claude valued these social efforts, seeing them as an opportunity to get more people in touch with their ethnobotanical roots.

He re-focussed and interjected some facts, “If I may, on the sustainability part, for centuries, it can be concluded that without oil and electricity, this Abu Dhabi Emirate region sustains at most about 25,000 humans, but with very significant, serious hardships.”

“Interesting this concept of sustainability,” Fairuz started, “I agree with your numbers; but, the quality of their life, the tenuous nature of the supply of food and water made life here almost like a, a penal colony.”

Fairuz suggested, “Current environmentalists, mostly from the temperate Western world seem to romanticize a simpler life style–pre-oil–pre-industrial. Life here was hell, even fifty years ago, a day in-day out major struggle for existence.”

Jean-Claude added, “Along the same line, I recently read a novel written by an Emirati lady, born in the 1940s. SandFish was the title and the lady’s name was Maha Gargash. She described her life as a youth and their small herd of goats in the foot hills of the Hajar mountains. She went on, writing that after marriage, her move to the Dubai region, with its dependence on pearling–was nothing but impossible hardships, her whole life–absolutely impossible hardships!”

  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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Jean-Claude Thibaut, Ethnobotanist

…kaouwa…

Dates and coffee together tell social history of the southern Arabian Peninsula–rarely is there majlis without dates and coffee.

Majlis is a simple Arabic word that has always been a part of the sands–a part of the human matrix over the landscape of the Empty Quarter. Majlis describes people getting together to talk.

…majlis…

Majlis–so, my friends, which language should we use–Esperanto? French? Classical Arabic? Gulf Arabic? Levantine Arabic? Urdu? Malay? Hindi? Or, Farsi? Forget political correctness. The practical language of choice is English, of course–the international language of business. It is the practical reality…but…under the surface…?

Erik Chalmers preparing for majlis with his South African boss, Theuns van der Walt, arrives early and first meets with his close friend, Belgian Ethnobotanist Jean-Claude Thibaut. They sit in a private club, known as the Library, a place of cultural, of artistic stimulation and climatic relief, to compare natural and social notes–landscape, plants, people, desert culture–as it has been, and is, in the Liwa Oasis region of the Empty Quarter.

…inside--outside…

Abdul Qader Al Rais, his works adorning the Library, is one of the most acclaimed artists from the UAE. Of many talents, he paints, photo realistically, traditional Emirati architecture and landscape. Underneath his images, he existentially addresses the unusually strange changes between inside and outside.

Following is a short part from Chapter 10: Library Majlis to impart some of the landscape feeling of The 23 Club.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis
  • Library Majlis

               Jean-Claude Thibaut, Ethnobotanist

Chalmers had lingered, a dalliance to say the very least, as he had walked through those gardens. He was now a bit late when he reached The Library. Entering, he was immediately calmed by the mingling fragrances of agar wood, sandalwood and amber, blended in a bukhoor, an incense…an incense that lightly infused the cool, dry and comfortable library air. He inhaled deeply two, three times, then felt simultaneously relaxed and focussed. Jean-Claude sitting, reading the local newspapers, saw him enter. He arose. They shook hands.

After exchanging greetings and sitting down, both agreed the best drink would be Moroccan fresh mint tea, especially since the fresh mint was grown locally in The Library gardens. Along with massive amounts of fresh mint leaves, the mint tea mix included a pinch of black tea, and refined white sugar chipped from large blocks, all to be prepared in front of them. The final presentation according to the menu, should include a seasonably available layer of fresh orange blossoms, floating on the top.

Proper Moroccan tea in a restaurant was always theater. The drama arrived as the waiter poured the tea from the pot to the small tea glasses, elongating the threadlike stream of tea to almost a meter, before closing it down so that not a drop was spilled during the pouring.

As it was poured, the smell of the steaming, fresh mint tea captivated. After the pouring ceremony, a cloth was removed from a small, colorfully hand painted, Moorish style earthen bowl. Inside the bowl were pure white and fresh orange blossoms, along with freshly picked, young green mint sprigs. The waiter gently tonged them into the tea. The orange blossom fragrance overlapped the mint, and by scent alone refreshed nearly to sweet intoxication.

After sampling the hot tea and quietly appreciating the fulsome, blended aromas, Chalmers began to review with Jean-Claude all the key project and business players he had met over the past couple days. Jean-Claude explained how those players were related to the top members of the Abu Dhabi ruling family.

He pointed out, “While these relationships are never really obvious to many of the business people and workers here in the Emirates, behind the scenes, these are the relationships that keep everything ticking over–the relationships with roots deep into Bedu history, that guide the morals and ethics of this Emirate and the UAE.”

Jean-Claude explained, “The unification of the Emirates started with Sheik Zayed bin Khalifa bin Nahyan the First, in the nineteenth century and was consolidated by his great grandson, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan bin Nahyan, who, in the twentieth century, the late 1960s to be exact, successfully coordinated the unification of the seven Emirates. Leadership by the Nahyan family still continues today. These are the rulers of Abu Dhabi. And these are the rulers of the UAE. The leaders of the other six Emirates and the Nahyans interact through majlis as has always been the tradition. Even though national government institutions and administrative procedures have been overlaid, underneath you will find the strong, fundamental bond is the evolving Bedu majlis tradition born from shared longterm hardships.”

Jean-Claude’s eyes fell upon some botanical drawings of Phoenix dactylifera displayed on the wall across from him. He paused, thinking about their simple beauty. He looked over at Chalmers, a dedicated landscape specialist who, in his own way, also loved the beauty of plants. In Chalmers, Jean-Claude saw an international fortune hunter–or a storm chaser if you will–justified because he was here to bring more plants to the lives of Emiratis and he was above all else, good hearted–always been that way through all the years of their association.

Jean-Claude took another drink of mint tea, then looking again at the date palm botanical drawings, he thought of the date palm’s many uses in a transient oasis based culture–uses both simple and also complex. He thought about their position in an austere Emirati culture before he explained further to Chalmers, “The success of the Emirati tribes, enduring and working through the climatic hardships, and the shortage of water has built a strength of character extremely unique.

“Based upon these strengths, the Emiratis, have an internal pride that is rarely examined by the world’s mainstream media. You can find references to it in books, written by authors like Wilfred Thesiger and Frauke Heard-Bey; but most mainstream writers, expat workers and businessmen alike choose the easy way–accepting the centuries-old, negative stereotypes of the Bedu character and overlaying them onto all contemporary business and workplace relationships. That stuff is good to know, but it will not get you to the core of people’s motivations here, mon ami.”

Jean-Claude always spoke in a soft voice in public. Chalmers had to strain to hear Jean-Claude’s next point.

“In public, the Emiratis do not talk about it; but they do have a self consciousness about this modern world, its communications, and, its values.” Jean-Claude, sitting up in his chair and drawing closer to Chalmers, continued, “Emiratis think that modern, Western world values are not based on the strength of austerity, but rather, based on the relativity of excesses.”

Chalmers thought about cultural understandings and the ambiguities of cultural differences, then added, “This kind of cultural gap is a fundamental challenge in all work out here, at least that’s how I’ve found it. For me, a three stage process has always worked:  inform myself, then trust, but verify.” They both sat back, took a drink of mint tea, and relaxed, as the conversation paused.

  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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The Heat…and the relief

…give me shelter…

Who would not want to walk here? But, you can not feel the temperature, you can not sweat the heat in this photo. Can you imagine, while you are sitting comfortably in your temperate climate–can you imagine 18 hours a day outside with the ambient air temperature higher than your body temperature?

Yet, here in the United Arab Emirates, on the blazing edges of that aggressive sand dune desert, the Empty Quarter, with the addition of top soil, irrigation water and proper maintenance for carefully selected and protected plants, beautiful gardens have been built; and for short walks they are wonderfully inspirational, as Erik Chalmers discovers and shares.

Following is a short part from Chapter 9: Finding Majlis to impart some of the landscape feeling of The 23 Club.

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The 23 Club

Immersed in the contemporary culture of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, against the backdrop of the Empty Quarter, The 23 Club tells the inside story of how an iconic project gets built in the oil rich, Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula.

Table of Contents

  • Desertification
  • It’s 2AM
  • Spike Lounge
  • The Walk
  • Rub Al Khali Coastal
  • Rub Al Khali Inland
  • Liwa Qsar
  • The Nursery
  • Finding Majlis

               The Heat and the Relief

Early in his expatriate career, Chalmers had a mentor–a mentor who had for decades already been working in Iran, Turkey and the Arab Middle East. He told Chalmers not to overestimate his professional position, that their white collar management, their consultancy positions in the pecking order here were exactly the same as the sweaty laborers on site. White collar, blue collar–no difference–hired, manipulable and replaceable. They were all ‘no counters’.

In time, experience in this part of the world had taught Chalmers that strict plans and aggressive adherence to them would guarantee the cross cultural undoing of any Western professional. But, he also knew that without a plan, these large projects could never succeed in the time frame required. He always kept an overall plan foremost in his mind. That gave him big picture guidelines such that he could always revise the details in real time, according to the unpredictable vagaries of time, circumstance, people. Including cunning and masquerade, nothing was left out of his box of tools to build inspirational and beautiful gardens and landscapes. This was performance art in action. That is how Chalmers thought of his work–performance art.

It was Thursday. Theuns van der Walt wanted his update and briefing at 9PM at The Library, a place, part of a spa in a large hotel where he sometimes met a couple key Emiratis who had interest in his Empty Quarter Project, Liwa Qsar. To prepare himself for that briefing, Chalmers planned to arrive earlier than usual to sit with his old friend, the Belgian Ethnobotanist, Jean-Claude Thibaut. Chalmers wanted to review his own findings, to cross check them against Jean-Claude’s knowledge of political and social contexts in this region.

The Library, where Chalmers was to meet Jean-Claude, and later Theuns, was a refuge, carefully hidden, deep, within a mysterious sequence of intimate, private gardens. Chalmers looked forward to walking through these gardens. He fancied a dalliance.

  • Library Majlis
  • Villa Majlis
  • Long and Short
  • Pilgrimage
  • Wanderweg
  • Appendix 1:  Berner Oberland Back Story
  • Author’s Notes
  • Plant List
  • Colophon

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(to be continued)

© 2015 Edward Flaherty

**Blatant Plug: If you find this writing about humans and landscape intriguing, please share it with your like-minded friends. Thank you.**

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