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Thursday, November 29, 2007

My cab ride to Beirut

OK, truth be told, I didn't actually take a taxi to the capital of Hezbollah-land.   

But when I tried to arrange a cab to take me from Beer Sheva to my home in Efrat the other night, you would have thought that Lebanon was my destination based on the number of cab drivers who refused to accept the fare.

It was about 10:00PM and I had long since missed my regular carpool home. Under normal circumstances I would have either stayed over in Beer Sheva at a local hotel or tried to hitchhike home.  But seeing as it was really late and I needed to be in Jerusalem first thing in the morning, I decided to treat myself to a taxi ride home.

So far so good... until the fun began, that is.

The process would begin with a call to the taxi dispatcher:

Dispatcher:  Hallow!

Me:  Hi, I need a taxi to come to [name of my company].

Dispatcher: No problem, where are you going?

Me:  Efrat... In Gush Etzion.

Dispatcher:  No problem... someone will be right there.

Within a few minutes a taxi would pull up and the driver would ask "Where did you say you needed to go?"  I would tell him, which would result in the him saying he had to speak to his dispatcher... getting back in his cab... and promptly driving away.

This was repeated several times.  One or two drivers asked if it was possible to get to Efrat without entering the 'shtachim' (territories)... while others offered excuses ranging from not having enough gas in the car to never having heard of Gush Etzion.

I was shocked.  At the risk of generalizing, the typical taxi driver here tends to be the salt of the earth... an Israeli 'everyman' of sorts.  As a group they tilt heavily towards mizrachi (Sephardi and eastern) origins, and even more heavily towards the political right. 

I don't know exactly what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the abject horror that crossing the green line seemed to evoke in these normally devil-may-care men.

Finally I got a driver who, after a few minutes of reassuring, agreed to take me home.

Once we were on our way he began peppering me with a string of non-stop nervous questions:

"How far is it?"

"Are you sure?"

What's that village over there... Jewish or Arab?"

"Arab!?  Is it 'problematic'?"

"What about that one?"

"You really drive this road every day?"

"Have you ever had any problems... roadside bombs... shooting... rocks... Molotov cocktails???"

"What the h... that was a Palestinian license plate on the car that just passed us!  I didn't know they were allowed on the roads?!"

Oh G-d!... I see headlights behind us.  Should I be worried that it might be a terrorist following us?????!"

And on and on and on...

By the time we'd passed half a dozen sleeping Arab villages and were approaching the southern outskirts of Hevron, the driver had worked himself into a state of panic about terrorists who seemed to be lurking just around every bend to turn his wife into a widow and orphan his children. 

Five or six times he reached for the same empty cigarette pack, each time tossing it back on the dashboard in disgust.   So finally, as much as I loathed the idea of being trapped in a car full of smoke, I suggested we pull into Kiryat Arba where he could buy himself a fresh pack of cigarettes, thinking that it might help calm his nerves.

Once inside Kiryat Arba he visibly relaxed and stared in amazement at the neat streets lined with stone-clad apartment buildings, parks and playgrounds. 

"All these buildings have people living in them?" he asked me in wide-eyed wonder.  When I answered in the affirmative he just shook his head and kept repeating "I didn't know... I didn't know...".  Apparently he had bought into the media version of 'the territories' where everyone lives in trailers on wind-swept hilltops.

When we'd finally parked and gotten his smokes, I suggested he take a short break from driving and just sit outside enjoying the cool night air.  I figured that not only would this spare me from the stink of smoke inside the cab, but it would also give me the opportunity to point out a nearby feature I had a hunch might be of interest to him.

I pointed at an electric gate in a chain-link fence that was less than 100 yards from where we were parked.  "You see that gate?"  I began.  "Just a minute or two beyond that gate is the Ma'arat HaMachpelah (the cave of the Patriarchs)". 

He stared at me as though I'd just told him that Abraham himself was waiting in the dark just beyond the fence.

"Are you serious? I thought the Arabs destroyed that during the Intifada!  It still exists?!"

I explained that it had been Joseph's tomb that was destroyed by the Arabs, and that the Ma'arat HaMachpelah  - the tomb of the Patriarchs - was sill very much extant.

Apparently forgetting all about the previous 45 minutes of white-knuckled terror, the driver sprinted around the car, reached through the window for the radio microphone, and called his dispatcher.

"Itzik... ITZIK... you hear me?"

The click of a far-away mic was followed by a laconic, "Shome'ah" [I hear you]

"Itzik, you'll never believe where I am.  I stopped for cigarettes in Kiryat Arba and I'm parked within a few meters of the Ma'arat HaMachpelah!"

The dispatcher's voice burst over the radio... this time full of excitement and now, apparently on the public channel:  "Hey Dudu, tchacho, Zvika, Hezi... everyone!  Yossi's calling from the Ma'arat HaMachpelah in Hevron!"

While this wasn't exactly true (since we were still technically in Kiryat Arba), the response was immediate and electric.  The radio speaker began broadcasting a competing jumble of joyful salutations from his fellow drivers in 'far-away' Beer Sheva:

"Kol Hakavod [congratulations], Yossi!"

"Zachita!" [you won!]

"Yossi, you have to say Tehilim [Psalms] for my mother at the Ma'arah [cave]... she's having an operation tomorow.  [Her name is]... Sarah Bat Shifra... Sarah Bat Shifra... you hear me... Sarah Bat Shifra!"

"Aizeh Gibor [what a hero!]"

"Yossi... Tell us what you see."

"Sarah Bat Shifra... Yossi, don't forget!"

"Yossi... Hazarta B'Tchuvah?  [Did you become religious?]... Kol HaKAvod!"

"How did you get there... did you get lost"

What does it look like... is it beautiful in the moonlight?"

"Sarah Bat Shifra... Yossi... Sarah Bat Shifra!"

It was like a replay of Motta Gur's famous "Har HaBayit B'Yadainu!" [the Temple Mount is in our hands!] broadcast.

Apparently forgetting completely about how frightened he had been just minutes before, the driver turned to me and asked if we could go into Hevron to pray at the Ma'arat HaMachpelah.

I looked at my watch and noted that it was after 11:00PM already... but he misunderstood the gesture.

"Don't worry", he assured me.  "You're not on the meter.  I have a flat-fee voucher from your company so nobody will mind if we take a short side trip."

I quickly reassured him, "No, it's not that.  I'd actually love to go the the Ma'arah... I haven't been there in a few months [last time I was there was with Jameel and Psychotoddler].  But I'm almost sure they close it to visitors at 9 or 10PM."

He looked crestfallen.  He stared longingly towards the closed gate leading into Hevron and into the darkness beyond, and asked, "Are you sure?"

I just shrugged and said, "Look, that's what I remember.  But don't take my word for it.  There's an army Jeep parked by the gate... let's go ask them."

We quickly jumped into the taxi and drove the short distance to the gate and pulled up alongside the idling Jeep.  Yossi got out and had a brief conversation with the soldiers.  There were some animated hand gestures from Yossi, but they were of the disappointed sort... such as one might see in the aftermath of a natural disaster.  Lots of breast beating and placing of hands on the head as if in despair.

A few minutes later the driver came dejectedly back to the taxi... but instead of getting in he reached over to the recess under the radio and fished out an embroidered velvet kippah (yarmulke) and a well-thumbed book of Psalms with an ornate silver cover.  Without a word he strode back towards the gate and upon reaching the chain link fence, began reciting out loud into the darkness beyond:

"Shir Lamalot... Esa Einai el heharim... mayayen yavo ezri..."

[A song of ascents.  I raise my eyes to the mountains...  from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth... He won't allow your foot to be moved... He doesn't sleep... The protector of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps! ... ]

I sat there in the front seat listening to the taxi driver recite the 121st Psalm into the darkness beyond the fence.  Although he occasionally glanced at the small silver-clad book in his hand, it was clear to me that he knew the verses by heart as there was certainly not enough light to see the small print there by the fence.

I seemed to be the only one taking any notice of the goings on.  The soldiers sitting nearby in their idling jeep barely looked up from their coffee and conversation... and the two or three people standing outside the store where Yossi had bought his cigarettes didn't even glance in our direction.

I thought to myself, 'what a funny country we live in'.  We're all terrified of the unkown / unfamiliar, but completely un-phased by the things we know.

The secular and religious experience emotions about each other ranging from distrust to hate because they no longer know one another.  The urbanites and settlers experience similar emotions about one-another due to the same sort of unfamiliarity and disconnect. 

The non-political Jews and Arabs are just as wary of each other as their more 'active' counterparts, again, due largely to the scariness of the unknown strangers.  Those that live and travel in the territories are (mostly) at ease with commutes and ambulations that, for some reason, fill the hearts of Israel's city-dwellers with dread.

When my driver, Yossi, had finished reciting a few more psalms - presumably with his fellow driver's mother in mind - we resumed our journey, and within 20 minutes arrived outside my house in Efrat.  I asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee for the ride back to Beer Sheva, but he shook his head and said he'd be fine. 

I reviewed the return route with him and gave him my cell phone number in case he lost his way... but I could see he was writing it down mostly to humor me.  Gone was the cloud of hesitancy and fear under which we'd begun our trip together.  In it's place was a confident, macho mizrachi cab driver who was completely at home in his surroundings.

Almost as an afterthought I asked him if he was glad he'd taken the fare.  Without hesitating he answered that he'd lived his whole life in Israel... most of it in Beer Sheva... and had never realized how close Hevron was.  He told me that on his next day off from work he was going to bring his family to pray at the Ma'arat HaMachpelah.  "My son's going into the army this year" he confided with a shrug.  "If not now... when?" *

I couldn't agree more.  As I watched him drive away I couldn't think of a better way to sum up the need for people's perspectives to change; 'If not now, when?'

* He was quoting Hillel from Pirkei Avot.  The full quote is "If I am not for myself who will be for me.  If I am only for myself, what am I.  If not now, when?"

Posted by David Bogner on November 29, 2007 | Permalink


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Thanks for the laugh....lovely story about life in Israel.....

Posted by: Safranit | Nov 29, 2007 12:14:33 PM

Wow, that is an amazing OII story. Thanks so much for sharing it. After 25 years this country still continues to astound me at every turn.

Posted by: Simon | Nov 29, 2007 12:28:00 PM

Great story. It's always true. People don't realize how close things are, nor how OK it is to visit.

Posted by: JoeSettler | Nov 29, 2007 12:33:02 PM

ok, you know what? this one made me cry. and what else? i have "sweet home alabama" blaring out of my speakers right now -- lol! erev yomim noraim we had a bus driver freaked out when he got us to the gate before kever rachel... the soldier on duty and our guide calmed him down. the bus filled with women who were quiet and confident about where we were about to go found this macho driver reduced to a quivering bundle of nerves quite funny.

Posted by: nikki | Nov 29, 2007 12:44:46 PM

[sniffle, sniffle]

Jeez, where is that tissue-alert when you need it?


I don't think I'll ever get used to how lucky we are to live here. And while that may be (is definitely) a good thing.... you might want to buy up some shares in Kleenex®....

I'm just sayin'.....

Posted by: zahava | Nov 29, 2007 1:25:27 PM

Oops.... forgot to close the tag....

Posted by: zahava | Nov 29, 2007 1:27:58 PM

I started off laughing and suddenly I'm in tears. There is a reason for everything. This guy decided to take you and I bet this fare was life changing for him.

Posted by: Baila | Nov 29, 2007 1:33:01 PM

what- you mean they're ARAB villages !!!!

Posted by: brit academic | Nov 29, 2007 2:39:16 PM

Laura Mercy, where do you get these stories from? Amazing!


Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | Nov 29, 2007 2:51:49 PM

What a wonderful post; thank you.

Posted by: ShrinkWrapped | Nov 29, 2007 2:57:03 PM

Good story. Clearly he doesn't understand what sort of luck he draws from being close to a Sox fan.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 29, 2007 4:19:38 PM

This story is unbelievable! It's so hard to believe how ignorant Israelis are about their own country!

I was shocked to discover that, although I've only been to Israel a handful of times, I had already been to the Western Wall more often than a sizable percentage of Israelis.

Israel is in the middle of an existential crisis, and yet half of the arguers don't have a clue about what they're arguing over!

I think every Israeli should visit the Kotel, and Efrat, and Kiryat Arbah, and the Maarat Hamachpela, and The Generations Center before they decide what Israel is or isn't about.

I think the same is true for Jews all over the world.

Posted by: psychotoddler | Nov 29, 2007 4:25:17 PM

Loved your story...very poignantly told.

Posted by: Z | Nov 29, 2007 5:13:53 PM

Amazing story. Huge positive to the yeshivot/seminaries for kids from chutz l'aretz. They take you all over the entire the country and you visit everything!

Posted by: SaraK | Nov 29, 2007 5:20:20 PM

Aww shucks. That's a great story.

Posted by: Alice | Nov 29, 2007 5:22:15 PM

What a beautiful story!

Posted by: Josh M. | Nov 29, 2007 6:26:39 PM

I was going to leave a comment to the effect that you have a talent for elevating mundane slices of life to another level...but then, I realized that there is nothing mundane about a story like this. You start out with what seems to be a gripe about getting a cab ride to Gush Etzion, and by the time we get to the end of the post, our eyes are glistening, welling with tears.

There are so many things this post tells me about life in your corner of Israel. Subtle things, things as minor as the relationship that developed between Yossi and you in such a brief time.

Reading the words of Psalm 121 in the context of your post made them come alive.

Thank you for yet another illuminating little story, one that says so much with relatively few words.

Posted by: Elisson | Nov 29, 2007 6:39:11 PM

David, I have to hand it to you. That was probably one of the best posts you've ever written. Not even really because of the story, but because of your conclusion. Kol Hakavod.


Posted by: matlabfreak | Nov 29, 2007 7:03:51 PM

This was an amazing story, beautifully told. You SHOULD be writing a book for international release. It may do something to set the record straight about Israel.
Bless you.

Posted by: Noa | Nov 29, 2007 8:54:28 PM

Count me in on needing a tissue. I agree with one of the other commenters - this is one of your best posts ever.

Posted by: orieyenta | Nov 29, 2007 10:21:02 PM

another story for the book of "You can't make this stuff up".

Posted by: shmiel | Nov 30, 2007 12:22:39 AM

I don't know whether to laugh or to cry. What a great story!

Posted by: Irina | Nov 30, 2007 12:34:20 AM

Man, that's beautiful.

Posted by: Back of the Hill | Nov 30, 2007 12:54:23 AM

I have been lurking and reading for a while now. I had to respond to this. I had such goosebumps after I read this through, and the second time around I still had tears in my eyes. This was such a poignant and moving account of something that many other people would not have bothered to notice or write about - heck, most people wouldnt have stopped for their driver to get ciggies let alone give their driver a chance to say tehillim at 11 pm in chevron!!!

I was so touched by your personal truth that was so obvious in this post.

Kol Hakavod lechah.
Shabbat Shalom.

Posted by: Hadassah | Nov 30, 2007 1:47:02 AM

That brought tears to my eyes - what a beautiful story.

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Jaime | Nov 30, 2007 1:50:05 AM

I once hailed a cap down in ‘Eimeq Refa’im in Southern Jerusalem, in order to go to the Central Bus Station... and i had to direct the cab driver how to get there, 'cause he had just arrived in J'lem with a passenger all the way from Eilat.

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | Nov 30, 2007 3:45:55 AM

So poignant, on so many levels. Yasher koach!

I hope you submit this to newspapers and magazines -- they will surely print it. Then this message can reach the non-web crowd.

Posted by: QueenMalky | Nov 30, 2007 3:59:45 AM

great story.

when i get home tonight i am going to make this my blog's "post pick" in the sidebar.

my only comment: you can't--yes, yes, i know already, you can do whatever you want on your blog--blame someone for not wanting to return home alone through the shtachim in the middle of the night on roads they've never travelled on before. it's not like people haven't gotten lost before, ended up in an arab town and . . .

Posted by: lion of zion | Nov 30, 2007 4:16:39 AM

Glad to read about the Tomb, and moreso to read about the reaction of a "plain old" taxicab driver to sudden proximity to the Tomb. I pine for a little more of that faith here stateside. You have earned two thousand quatloos for this excellent post!

Posted by: Wrymouth | Nov 30, 2007 5:41:56 AM

A Psalm of Ascent at a tomb? What will you sing when you actually stand on the Temple Mount and see the Third Temple?

Posted by: Bob | Nov 30, 2007 6:13:15 AM

small miracles

Posted by: antares | Nov 30, 2007 10:11:16 AM

That driver took more than just a road trip on the physical plane. What an amazing story. Definitely one of your, if not the, best posts.

Posted by: Jennifer | Nov 30, 2007 10:51:50 AM


There is a non-web crowd? That can read? English?

Posted by: antares | Nov 30, 2007 11:52:05 AM

This story takes me back over 20 years when I was last in Hebron as a soldier. It is a beautiful part of good 'ol Eretz Yisrael.

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Nov 30, 2007 12:33:04 PM

Now I know at least one location I want to visit when I next go to Israel. Thanks for taking what could have been a mundane trip home and making it into something really powerful, both for the cab driver, and for all of us.

Posted by: JDMDad | Nov 30, 2007 2:45:27 PM

This post definitely needed a tissue alert.

Absolutely beautiful, David.

Posted by: Rahel | Nov 30, 2007 3:35:50 PM

Oh, how...how...kadosh.


Posted by: balabusta in blue jeans | Dec 1, 2007 9:47:45 PM

beautiful and uplifting.

Posted by: come running | Dec 2, 2007 9:12:03 AM

Safranit... I just wish I could be a fly on the wall when he tells his wife about his wild ride. :-)

Simon... Yes, living here does offer unlimited material for great stories (and memories).

JoeSettler... I can sort of understand the whole red line/comfort zone thing... but there are so many Israelis who literally have no idea about their heritage that lies within 30 or 40 minutes of their front doors. It's a shame.

nikki... First off, no need to tell me that you had Sweet Home Alabama blasting... I men, that's sort of redundant. After all, when they say "turn it up" over the opening riff you sort of have to comply, right? :-) As far as the whole tearing up thing... I honestly never understand how people might react to stuff I'll write. I was going for smiles and maybe a chin rub or two... but tears? It never entered my mind.

zahava... Like I said to Nikki, I don't put up a Kleenex alert for the simple reason that I can't imagine people reacting that way to my posts. Go figure.

Baila... I'd talk with someone about those mood swings of yours. :-)

brit academic... Don't bother about that. Just close your eyes and go back to sleep. :-)

Yehuda Berlinger... Life.

ShrinkWrapped... Don't thank me, I'm a giver. :-)

Jack... Heck, if he'd had more luck I might have been able to invite him for some sausages! ;-)

psychotoddler... Unfortunately, that is like telling a secular person that they can't make an intelligent decision to have a non-observant life-style until they've spent some time being religious. In theory it makes sense but real life decisions are rarely made that way. Sad.

Z... Hey, where have you been. Missed you!. Thanks for the compliment.

SaraK... Sadly too many of them don't go over the green line anymore because not all the parents will agree to the 'risks'.

Alice... I have good material. :-)

Josh M.... Thanks. I thought it was worth sharing.

Elisson... Oooh, you had me blushing right up until that last bit about 'few words'.. Now I'm not sure if the whole thing was meant sarcastically! ;-)

matlabfreak... I hope I left enough wiggle room for people to draw their own conclusions.

Noa... Know any literary agents/publishers who'd like to take on a new project? :-)

orieyenta... Well, keep me in mind for the next round of JIBs, mmkay? :-)

shmiel... Can I use that as the title if Noa ever finds me an agent/publisher?

Irina... Just take care of yourself (what with a serial killer stalking you!). ;-)

Back of the Hill... Thanks. Glad you liked it.

Hadassah... If this got you to de-lurk it was already worth it! :-) I appreciate you coming out of the dark to say hello.

Jaime... You know me... I'm a giver. :-)

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)... Well, that makes sense. Jerusalem is a mystery to anyone who doesn't live there.

QueenMalky... I'm way ahead of you. As soon as I saw that it seemed to touch a nerve with so many readers i pitched it around. We'll see what happens.

lion of zion... I get your point. But in this case there is literally no way to get lost. It is a straight shot both ways. Even if one misses the only turn, you end up in the same place! :-)

Wrymouth... Are those redeemable for something good? :-)

Bob... That won't be me singing... I'm not a Levite. :-)

antares... Yup... my thought exactly. Recognizing them is the trick.

Jennifer... Thanks Jen. Considering how long you and I have been reading each other (at least since late 2003) that is a huge compliment.

antares... Let's leave aside the theoretical existence of such people. There is a whole big world out there that haven't made it to my site. :-)

QuietusLeo... Yet so few realize it (or care about it) thanks to the negative media coverage.

JDMDad... Just let me know when you are coming and I'll set up everything.

Rahel... Thanks Rahel. Much appreciated.

balabusta in blue jeans... I've always maintained that if you scratch most of these 'secular' mizrachi cab drivers you will find a deeply religious / spiritual person just below the surface. In this case it was certainly true.

come running... Hmmm, I'd usually reserve those adjective for the 'wonder bra' but OK. Thanks! :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 2, 2007 9:42:47 AM

Excellent. My only gripe is the title - it is a good one, but I'm not sure that it is the best for this piece.

Posted by: Dan | Dec 2, 2007 11:49:38 PM

Congrats! You made Naomi Ragen's mailing list!

Posted by: Imshin | Dec 4, 2007 8:30:20 AM

That was an amazing post. I got your piece through Naomi Regan's email list. It was funny, sad, and beautiful. Its stories like this that make you want to make Aliyah right away. North America just doesnt cut it.

Posted by: Husbandhood | Dec 4, 2007 5:18:32 PM


Posted by: zalman | Dec 4, 2007 8:11:13 PM

Reminds me of trying to get a cab from Beit Shemesh after the big free concert during Sukkot in 2001, when this war broke out (it was 2001, right?). When the cab drivers heard we lived in Ma'aleh Adumim no one wanted to take us! We were so confused...
But the ending was fantastic! You have a big zechus here, and just because you wanted to get home. Yashar koach.

Posted by: Ye'he Sh'mey Raba Mevorach | Dec 5, 2007 10:08:22 AM

I just got this story by e-mail. It almost makes me feel like I'm missing something by living in Modi'in.

Posted by: Zvi Landsman | Dec 5, 2007 2:46:41 PM

What you experienced once, I experienced almost every day for 10 months.

I live in East Jerusalem in a neighborhood called Maaleh Hazeitim. It's a five minute drive from the Kotel. For about 10 months we didn't have a car, and since Egged doesn't come to our area, I depended on taxis. I would have to beg and plead with Jewish taxi drivers to take me home, since they would mostly freak out when they heard where I needed to get to, and if they were willing to take me, would quote double the price as if they were driving to Ramallah.

When Jewish taxi drivers did take me home, they either kept asking me how I live there and aren't I scared, berated me for derailing all peace efforts, or praised and blessed me the whole way. This became too much to handle, so I depended almost exclusively on an Arab taxi company. Many of them became my friends, and we would have long discussions about politics and religion. But there were a few drivers that resented that I lived there, and this made my dependence on them increasingly uncomfortable. I started to dread whether Mohammed (yes, that was his name) would be the guy they'd send to pick me up. He really hated me.

I got so sick of the whole thing that we ended up buying a car. All that for driving an extra five minutes from the Kotel.

Posted by: Miriam | Dec 6, 2007 9:52:54 AM

It's 7:19am and I'm CRYING! That was beautiful. Beautifully written post. You REALLY need those tissue alerts. That was unexpected!

Posted by: Maya | Dec 12, 2007 5:21:30 PM

David, I'm still reading...almost caught up...and just wanted to join the chorus here. This is a fantastic post that really belongs out there in print media. There are so many stereotypes and assumptions that need breaking down...

Posted by: Alisha | Dec 16, 2007 10:05:04 PM

Oh, my friend. You don't really need me to add my voice to the chorus; but I can't help it. This is a masterpiece, and timely and important. Thank you.

Posted by: rutimizrachi | Mar 5, 2012 9:43:20 PM

Started off so annoyed by the drivers refusing to take you and then suddenly, crying my eyes out.

An unbelievable story, a true "Only in Israel" moment.

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Trip'n Mommy | Mar 5, 2012 11:45:19 PM

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