Untold Stories from Encyclopaedia Iranica: Interview with Abbas Amanat

Zamaneh Media
21 min readFeb 11, 2021

by Mahtab Divsalar — 11February, 2021

This is an English translation of Abbas Amanat’s interview in Persian with Zamaneh in November 2020 about the Encyclopaedia Iranica. At the time the fate of this publication was entangled in a legal dispute between the encyclopaedia’s host institution, Columbia University, and the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation. The legal dispute has endangered the future of one of the most important academic projects on Iranian history. Abbas Amanat, Professor of History at Yale University and Director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies, in this interview, talks about Iranica and its significance for knowledge production in the field of Iranian studies.

Abbas Amanat, William Graham Sumner Professor of History at Yale University and Director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies. — Photo by Ali Fotovvati

-Please talk about your own collaboration with Iranica and working with Dr. Yarshater.

-I first came to know the late Dr. Yarshater exactly 40 years ago, in 1981, when I was still a graduate student at Oxford. I translated from Persian and updated a few entries for the Encyclopaedia Iranica (EIr), at a time when it was at its inception. In 1982, when I met Dr. Yarshater in New York, he invited me to write more entries on the history of the Qajar era. Sometime around 1988, he invited me to serve as Iranica’s Consulting Editor for the Qajar period, and I have served in that capacity ever since and over the years, I wrote more than 20 entries for EIr.

Prior to my involvement with Iranica, I naturally was aware of a number of scholarly and cultural projects that Dr. Yarshater had initiated and brought to fruition while still teaching at Tehran University. He was the founder and director of the Book Translation and Publication Corporation (Bongah-e Tarjomeh va Nashr-e Ketab), one of the most successful publication endeavors ever undertaken in Iran. He was also the founder of the Iran Book Society (Anjoman-e Ketab Iran) and the publisher of Rahnama-ye Ketab, which, under the editorship of the late Dr. Iraj Afshar, distinguished itself as the most important Persian scholarly book review journal in the 1960s and up to 1979. Dr. Yarshater was also a prime mover behind the multi-volume Cambridge History of Iran and personally edited the massive two-volume set on the Sasanian period. He was also the founder and editor of the outstanding Persian Heritage Series that offered English translations of some 40 pivotal Persian classical texts as well as the accompanying series of scholarly studies on Iran and Persian sources. Starting in the 1980s, he also co-edited with the late Dr. Franz Rosenthal the collaborative 22-volume translation of the History of Tabari from Arabic into English. These were all initiated when he still teaching first at Tehran University and then at Columbia University as a distinguished scholar of Persian literature, ancient Iranian cultures and religions, and Iranian dialectology. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to rank him among the most prolific and influential scholars of Iran, of Persian culture, both ancient and Islamic, and a remarkable force behind advancing Iranian and Persianate studies in the 20th century.

Known to a large and diverse number of Iran specialists worldwide, Dr. Yarshater was a source of encouragement and support to whomever he felt had the scholarly, artistic, or administrative potential to further these scholarly projects. Through the Persian Heritage Foundation (PHF), Dr. Yarshater generously funded a number of fellowships and lecture series at various universities in the United States and Europe. The Yarshater postdoctoral fellowship at the Yale Program in Iranian Studies, for example, has proven to be a valuable tool for launching academic careers of young and talented scholars specializing in various Iran-related fields.

A man of inexhaustible energy and devotion, Dr. Yarshater embarked on the Encyclopaedia Iranica project, perhaps his magnum opus, relatively late in his career. Since its inception in 1981, Iranica has proven to be the most comprehensive research tool for all scholars working in Iranian studies and associated fields to include Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, and Anatolia. Four decades and 16 volumes later, the Encyclopaedia Iranica has become an indispensable tool for a vast range of researchers working on archeology, anthropology, history, literature, languages, society, the visual arts, music, handicrafts and popular culture. Each entry in Iranica presents the current state of scholarship on a given subject, including an updated bibliography. It is no exaggeration to say that no other publication, including the Encyclopedia of Islam, which is now in its third edition, offers as extensive and thorough a coverage of these fields. Iranica demonstrates, free of boastful claims, the span of knowledge about Iran and beyond and highlights the interactions among societies and cultures stretching from China to Europe and from East Africa and Southeast Asia to Russia. Moreover, it demonstrates the remarkable continuity alongside the extensive change that the Iranian world has witnessed over a vast temporal span from ancient to Islamic to modern times. It demonstrates how, over time, the Iranian world and Persian culture and literature came to be appreciated and studied by others. Surely the largest collaborative effort ever undertaken in the field of Iranian studies, Iranica reflects its founder’s organizational abilities, devotion, and commitment of its editors, contributors, and supporters. This is all the more significant because Iranica has continued to offer an alternative image of Iran, its culture, and its history at a time when the country is going through a period of revolutionary and post-revolutionary convulsion and at a time when its image abroad remains badly bruised. Dr. Yarshater’s vision and his managerial skills made such a project possible at Columbia University and with the long-term support from the National Endowment for Humanities, a US federal agency. Indeed, Iranica stands out as a project longest supported ever in the history of NEH.

Anyone who knew Dr. Yarshater and visited him in his office at the Iran Center at Columbia may remember him devoting long hours of his time reading and editing entries, corresponding and monitoring Iranica’s progress. His true devotion to Iranica, as he himself stated, took priority over everything else, including his own scholarship. He was a distinguished philologist specializing in northern Iranian dialects; he was one of the first graduates of Tehran University and his doctoral dissertation on Timurid poetry received the first distinction in that university. Later he studied ancient Iranian languages and religions at SOAS with the renowned Walter Henning. Yet his interests went far beyond philology and ancient languages to include art, history, and music. He had an excellent collection of Persian manuscripts as well as paintings by Iranian modernists, and he was among the first to write in Persian on modern art with a remarkably keen eye. He was a polymath who all his life recognized, encouraged, and supported people from all walks of life and fields of scholarship.

-Now, a legal case is in the courts between the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation and Columbia University which has posed major obstacles in the way of Iranica’s operation. Some have stated that the reason for these problems has something to do with its past management. What is your view were the prime cause of these problems?

-Let me start by saying that the late Dr. Yarshater had his own style of management, which became almost second nature to him; the outcome of the time and the environment in which he was raised and undertook his earlier cultural endeavors. As I noted in my eulogy at his memorial service, Dr. Yarshater belonged to a generation that was shaped in the early Pahlavi era, when individual initiative rather than group effort was at the core of any successful project, including academic ones. He himself, as I recall, acknowledged and valued this individualistic style. It is therefore not surprising that he would nurture and apply the same style to the management of Iranica, a kind of approach that even half a century of teaching and research at Columbia University could not entirely change. That approach, combined with his exceptional abilities, made his management style successful in his own time. Yet in the long run, as became apparent toward the end of his life and thereafter, this had unfortunate consequences.

Moreover, with tremendous perseverance, Dr. Yarshater and his colleagues and friends over more than two decades managed to raise a significant endowment for Iranica, which currently exceeds $20 million. He encouraged many interested individuals to donate, and some large gifts were made by friends of Iranica, while smaller ones were raised at banquets and galas with the help of many enthusiastic supporters all over the world. Needless to say, these donations along with the support from Columbia, the NEH, and other donors and institutions were essential for the day-to-day operation and for Iranica’s future financial solvency. Ironically, today the EIF is more concerned with filling its own coffers rather than fulfilling its fundamental obligation. Many years prior to establishing EIF, Dr. Yarshater had also created his own Persian Heritage Foundation (PHF), endowing it with capital which in later years grew with the sale at auction of his art collection. He had a remarkable collector’s eye, and among other things, sometime in the 1960’s I believe, he had purchased a bust by Rodin, the French sculptor, that he later sold at auction, with the proceeds going to PHF.

As for EIF, once the former members of its board resigned in short succession, new members were appointed. These, it turned out, were less qualified and left much to be desired. For one thing, it was not clear, at least to me, what were the criteria for appointing new members nor what really were their qualifications. Moreover, these new appointments were not made in accordance with Iranica’s bylaws, which required the approval of the Board of Trustees, then non-existent. Even my own appointment to EIF’s board of directors was somewhat vague since I was only voted in by the existing board. The question lurking in the back of my mind was why did others resign, and how had I and the other new members taken their place? The answer to these questions, given by those who apparently had promoted themselves to the board’s “Executive Committee,” was always the same: we are appointed by majority vote.

Even more striking, while Dr. Yarshater was still alive, the EIF Board began to revise the Foundation’s bylaws and subsequently went as far as abolishing the Board of Trustees and entrusting the Foundation’s authority and responsibilities solely to the Board of Directors. This was one of several violations by the EIF Board that I personally witnessed between November 2016 and June 2019. I am sure former members of the board and Iranica’s editors can also vouch for other irregularities. In retrospect, it seems clear that these were deliberate moves, part of a coup, so to speak, designed to monopolize power and in due course to invite to the EIF board new like-minded members. Except for a few academics, these new members had no scholarly background to oversee Iranica’s affairs. These moves, especially those perpetrated behind closed doors by EIF’s Executive Committee, betrayed nothing but raw ambition and a lack of willingness to tolerate alternative views.

When I arrived, there were still a few academic colleagues, but soon the majority of the board consisted of people who had little clue about the nature of the Iranica project. They probably had not even read a page of Iranica let alone being seriously engaged with its editorial staff and its contributors. Unfamiliar with academia and research, they were unaware of what it takes to publish an encyclopedia. Some had amassed wealth in the financial markets or were Internet and communication investors, or they had become board members because they or their relatives knew Dr. Yarshater, or at some point had donated to Iranica. The newer members were appointed without serious scrutiny because they were friends and protégés of the members of the Executive Committee. Of course, I have no problem with people from the business community, lawyers, money managers, and distinguished professionals joining EIF, but many of those who are now on the board, unfortunately, don’t fully grasp, or perhaps deliberately wish to ignore, the very central mission of EIF. They fail to acknowledge that Iranica is not some kind of capital venture or some political association. And certainly, it is not a place to parade overblown egos or to engage in backstabbing and divisive “boardroom politics.” Most of these members were about the “bottom line”: as if Iranica were a supermarket or a branch of a bank that can shut down in one place and reopen somewhere else. Unfortunately, as they have shown in practice, they seem to have no business acumen other than to waste the foundation’s capital by lining the pockets of litigation lawyers.

When I first joined the EIF board, I was under the impression that this new group had some acumen and knowledge, and that a brighter future was before us; that we could remedy some of the past shortcomings and move forward to have a more efficient and creative Iranica. For a brief moment I thought that, in addition to Iranica, we might support other cultural projects in the field of Iranian Studies. But it soon became apparent that most members of the Board were moving in a different direction and that their priorities sharply differed from what I considered fundamental for Iranica. Grave problems that Iranica was facing and the need for substantial reforms often fell by the wayside. Although the salaries of the editors improved somewhat, the need to employ new editors so as to speed up editing and production was ignored. Little attention was paid to the fact that EIF is obligated to regularly raise money for Iranica and that the board should be in regular contact with the editor-in-chief and the senior editors and maintain amicable relations with Columbia.

From the very beginning of this period, there was a poisonous atmosphere marked by coverup and intrigue. It soon became clear that in the eyes of the Executive Committee (and its supporters), the emphasis was to be merely on one thing, namely the ownership of copyright. Soon this became the focus of all negotiations with Columbia, gradually overshadowing everything else. The Executive Committee, which considered itself autonomous and all-knowing, snubbed repeated requests by me and others that we are invited to take part in talks with Columbia. It was never clear what was going on in these talks and why there was so much insistence on proving EIF’s claim to copyright. Claiming the copyright thus became an obsession, indeed, a fetish, as if all other matters had to be set aside, including regular installments to Columbia for Iranica’s ongoing expenditures, in order to first prevail in the crusade over copyright. I gradually came to realize that this was just an excuse to muddy the waters, or, mixing metaphors, a smokescreen designed to cover a hidden agenda. The real objective, it turned out, was nothing less than to move Iranica from the Iran Center at Columbia University, where the encyclopedia had been established and housed for nearly forty years.

Several times during board meetings I asked what EIF would hope to achieve once it acquired the copyright; in other words, how crucial was copyright for Iranica’s production and its quality? Would it increase the number of published entries, or help with the editing or make the operation more efficient? Would it increase donations? Would it help make EIF’s endowment grow or improve Iranica’s standing? Would it enable us to employ more editors and pay better salaries to the staff and secure a better working environment and office space? For the contributors, the readers, and the editors, it is important to see a more efficient and better managed Iranica, irrespective of whether the copyright should or shouldn’t remain in Columbia’s hands. Moreover, what is better than for the encyclopedia to stay at a university like Columbia and benefit from the prestige of a major academic institution. Iranica has been at Columbia for 40 years and Dr. Yarshater held a chair there for many decades and there is institutional memory and certain permanency that cannot be ignored. Basically, I asked, what is the rationale behind moving Iranica elsewhere?

Yet, as it turned out, the Executive Committee and its subordinates remained adamant about their plan to move Iranica to another university. Obviously lacking the necessary expertise and insight, they were of the opinion that Iranica is something more or less like Wikipedia. They even went so far as to propose that EIF should “build a platform” to “upload” Iranica’s entries, presumably with only a few editors and no central office. The editors, it was assumed, can work from any location and the Iranica enterprise could nominally be affiliated with any university.

I thought this was insane and certainly believed that it was not within the mandate and capacity of EIF to make such vital decisions based on the Executive Committee’s whims and wishes. I also pointed out that it would be in our best interest to come to terms with Columbia and find common ground, free from an irrational insistence on copyright ownership. Quarreling with the university, I warned, might lead to Iranica’s ruin. Yet the board did not have the necessary insight and the experience to take the appropriate actions, or perhaps deliberately pretended not to know what grave consequences were in the offing. Columbia University, as I came to learn through other channels, had conveyed to the Executive Committee that, like other research universities around the world, it by no means was willing to allow the copyright of a project such as Iranica, established on Columbia’s premises, to be owned or taken over by another entity. If they did not strictly adhere to this principle, any researcher who develops or discovers something in a Columbia lab can claim that its proceeds belong entirely to her or him. Hundreds of millions of dollars regularly granted by US federal agencies toward research and publication projects oblige universities to reserve the rights and the privileges arising from those projects within their own institution.

Moreover, it was because of Columbia’s credibility that Iranica received such generous grants from the National Endowment for Humanities for more than three decades. Since the transfer of copyright to EIF would set a precedent, Columbia is not in a position to agree to copyright to go to another party. Of course, Iranica has brought prestige to Columbia because it is a project of significant weight, but the chief reason why Columbia is insisting on its non-transferable rights is because of its commitments to such agencies as the NEH. I am not of course privy to the terms of Dr. Yarshater’s agreement with Columbia and I have not seen documents to indicate that the copyright was indeed claimed by EIF with the full knowledge of the university. But I believe that if an error in judgment has been made in the past with reference to the copyright, it is incumbent upon EIF to rectify it by paving the way for improved relations with Columbia rather than pointlessly fighting it in and out of the courts.

Adding to the complexity was the fact that in the last months of his life, Dr. Yarshater expressed a desire that the Iran Center at Columbia be renamed in his honor as the Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies. To accomplish his wish, the Persian Heritage Foundation donated ten million dollars to Columbia University toward the inauguration, development, and physical improvement of the new Yarshater Center with two important caveats, as I understand it, that Iranica would be sustained and funded by Columbia as the chief scholarly project of the new center and that an equal share of contribution be made by EIF. In light of total lack of cooperation by EIF and its refusal to pay the necessary dues to the university for the payment of salaries and other expenses, it is obvious that if PHF had not made this substantial donation, Iranica would be destined to collapse and come to an end. Columbia had been pushing for payment of salaries and may indeed have dismissed Iranica’s remaining staff and closed down the Center. PHF’s gift allowed Iranica to survive, even though its staff had to be reduced from eleven to four. The editor-in-chief, two senior editors, and a managing editor had remained devoted to the production of Iranica, and since then, despite all obstacles, the Yarshater Center has been able to publish three new fascicules.

Again, in a meeting of the board I pointed out that if EIF had other issues with Columbia, it should at least collaborate with PHF to honor Dr. Yarshater’s wishes. EIF’s capital after all had been raised by Dr. Yarshater for Iranica’s well-being and indeed for its survival. Whatever capital PHF had accumulated similarly was the result of Dr. Yarshater’s personal funds and his generosity through the sale of his private art collection. So, I argued, it is incumbent on us to honor his wishes. The Executive Committee retorted that whatever PHF has done, or is planning to do, is its own business and has nothing to do with us; we do what is in the best interest of EIF. Such a display of self-righteousness only created further friction. At this point I faced the Executive Committee and its subordinates all by myself since four other academic members of the Board had already resigned in disgust.

Later on, in an atmosphere of conspiracy and skullduggery, the EIF board went as far as ousting me on an entirely bogus charge of “revealing EIF’s secrets” to Columbia. This utterly outrageous charge, the hallmark of the board member’s conspiratorial mentality and their complete lack of tolerance for any alternative voice, was brought against me following my exchange of letters with Columbia and after I had sent several memos to the board highlighting the grave consequences of quarreling with Columbia and jeopardizing Iranica’s future by moving it elsewhere. It was also because the members of the Executive Committee were afraid that their failures, their incompetence and their dangerous schemes would become public. From the outset, it was clear that academics had no place on the EIF board; little attention was paid to their views (except for one member, who apparently was, and still is, the prime mover and shaker of the Executive Committee).

Photo by Ali Fotovvati

-You were close to Dr. Yarshater and for years collaborated with Iranica. Do you have any idea what at this juncture would have been his true wishes?

-There is no doubt in my mind that he would have opted for Iranica’s uninterrupted publication and its improved scholarly quality. That was why he wished such a large gift to go to Columbia for the establishment of the Yarshater Center; a wish that should be seen as his academic will and testament. The gift of course is not sufficient to sustain two major projects in the long term, one being Iranica and the other the 20-volume projected History of Persian Literature, of which so far seven volumes have been published under the supervision of Mohsen Ashtiyani, a senior editor of unique qualities. The completion of these projects, their ongoing revision, and the undertaking of similar projects in the future are consistent with Dr. Yarshater’s outlook and academic approach. If he were among us, I believe he would have been appalled by EIF’s conduct, the lack of sufficient funding for Iranica, the current litigation, and the quarreling with a university where he taught and conducted research for some sixty years. He would have been very displeased to witness the prolonged and bitter dispute with a university under whose auspices some sixteen volumes of Iranica have been published.

At times I wonder how Dr. Yarshater, were he alive today, would have survived the assault on Iranica. It is perhaps for the best that he is no longer here to see how the endowment that he raised with such toil and sacrifice is now being wasted for such unworthy purposes. Before I joined the EIF board, that board had already paid upwards of $100,000 to a New York management consulting firm to come up with an institutional restructuring plan for Iranica. Much of it, perhaps 80 percent of the plan eventually produced by that firm, voiced obvious and basic concerns, but with lots of bells and whistles, charts and graphs, highlighting issues that were evident to anyone with any common sense. The remaining 20% may have been new and worthwhile, yet in no way was the report worth that kind of price tag.

Apparently, both sides of the dispute are about to spend large sums on this legal case. Perhaps part or all of the cost is to be sustained by EIF’s funds. What are your thoughts on this issue?

– Of course, I am not privy to EIF’s expenditures, but I do know that hiring legal counsel in New York is an extremely costly affair. I also cannot understand what the ultimate benefit of this highly damaging legal dispute would be. In the last meeting of the Board that I attended, in response to my inquiries about the nature and terms of the legal action that was about to be launched, and the identity of the legal firms that were hired, I heard nothing but further coverup and stonewalling. We have a legal counsel, so the Executive Committee said, who oversees the potential legal case against Columbia, and we are in full control of the case and in due course will report the outcome to the board. But in reality, this was another stratagem wrapped in a legal guise so as to hide errors of judgement and lack of foresight. Regrettably, now that the fate of Iranica is in the hands of the courts, the lawsuit will no doubt carry another huge price tag, to be paid out of the funds controlled by EIF. Yet judging by the recent ruling of the New York court in favor of Columbia allowing the continued publication of Iranica by the Yarshater Center, it appears to anyone with the slightest familiarity with legal terms and procedures that by implication EIF does not have a case and that all its obsessive insistence on acquiring the copyright had no legal value. Yet I doubt this clear message on the wall will bring EIF to its senses.

In light of this setback, one fundamental question remains unanswered. In the unlikely event of EIF prevailing in this legal case and assuming the copyright, must EIF be transparent as to what course it is planning to take and what it has in mind for the future of Iranica? They cannot simply continue covering up, sitting self-righteously on EIF funds — funds that were collected without any involvement of the current board. For how many more years are they planning to remain on the board? Unfortunately, recent changes in the EIF’s bylaws gave the current members the ability to keep re-electing themselves for life, without the inconvenience of approval by Trustees. Moreover, given the current puzzling circumstances, does EIF envision that in the future two separate Iranicas are to be published, one out of Columbia and another one out of an undisclosed institution (if indeed there is one in the offing)? This is an outrageous prospect given the fact that the field of Iranian and Persianate studies, although growing and comprehensive, is vulnerable and can be polarized by the misjudgment of a body with no insight or expertise as to how a serious encyclopedia project should be edited and managed.

I guess EIF labors under the misperception that it can hire yet another “consulting firm” to actually “manufacture” an Iranica for them in exchange for generous rewards from EIF’s deep coffers. It is as if someone showed up at EIF’s doorstep and convinced the Executive Committee that producing an encyclopedia is child’s play, just a matter of gathering a few people here and there and, Wikipedia-like, “uploading” articles on Iranica’s “platform.” Whatever the case, EIF’s record shows nothing but pointless combativeness in defiance of common sense and prudence. As another sign of the board’s ignorance, as I recall, at one stage one member of the Executive Committee argued that since Columbia has a fewer faculty in Iranian studies than a certain targeted institution, it is advantageous to move Iranica away from Columbia. Such a rationale was of course totally oblivious of the very basic fact that nearly 100 percent of the 1600 or so contributors to Iranica are from institutions all over the world and not from the university that hosts Iranica.

-And the last question; how do you think public opinion, and more specifically those interested in Iranica and its future, and interested in the history and culture of Iran and the Iranian world, can help?

-Surely, a majority of Iranica’s friends and supporters, and the public at large, are unaware of what is going on. The current members of the EIF board are faceless individuals who are unknown to the academic community. Whatever credit Iranica has accumulated is due to Dr. Yarshater and the memory of his devotion to the project, and of course the prestige and academic weight of its contributors, editors, and supporters.

Those who are concerned with the survival of Iranica and see it as the outcome of a cumulative endeavor toward a better and more comprehensive understanding of Iran and the history and culture of the Persianate world must ask EIF why they have opted for this confrontational course. Why, after many years of being on the board of EIF, instead of working toward Iranica’s wellbeing and its financial health, which is EIF’s chief mission, are they jeopardizing its very future and wasting its funds by litigating in the courts? Why do they refuse to defray Iranica’s ongoing expenses and refuse to pay the salaries of the senior editors? Why have they left Iranica’s staff disillusioned and the working environment tense and hostile? Why has their conduct reduced the editorial staff in size at a crucial time when the experienced and long-serving senior editors should devote their time and effort toward hiring and training a new generation of younger editors? Why, instead of working with Iranica’s new publisher, have they brought a lawsuit against it, trying to stop Iranica’s publication? Why have they tampered with the terms of EIF’s bylaws and unilaterally eliminated the Board of Trustees, making EIF, and specifically the Executive Committee, the ultimate decision-making body? Why don’t they consult the editors, the contributors, and the long-time supporters of Iranica, but instead hide behind legal counsel, management consultants, and public relations firms?

Moreover, not only should the voices of senior editors and the Consulting Editors be heard, but so should the voices of those contributors who for years, even decades, have been writing entries for Iranica, and hence made a scholarly investment in Iranica’s continuity and its academic prestige as a global project. We should value and respect the time and the effort of the more than 1,600 contributors worldwide who over the past forty years produced about 6,500 extensive entries in more than sixteen Iranica volumes. All friends of Iranica, irrespective of their creed and personal views, and especially the Iranian-Americans and the Iranian-Europeans, should rise to the occasion now that Iranica is facing such uncertain prospects. They should make EIF realize that Iranica is not its sole property and that it cannot make arbitrary decisions on the future of such an outstanding collaborative project.

Yet despite all the current setbacks, I am optimistic about the future and very much hope that once the present obstacles have been removed, Iranica’s editors, the PHF, and those who really care for the future of Iranica, would be able to pave the way for a younger generation of editors to advance the project in an environment of cooperation and understanding.

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