Orhan Pamuk’s “Turkish Modern”:
Intertextuality as Resistance to the East-West Dichotomy

IJRC | Archive | Vol. 01 No. 02 (2012) | Articles | HUSEYIN

School of Oriental and African Studies,
University of London

This paper engages with interpretations of Orhan Pamuk’s representation of the “Turkish modern,” described by certain critics as being a “replication” and an “emulation” of the West, thus signifying that for Pamuk modernization is merely representative of Westernization. By reading Pamuk’s fiction and prose through a Modernist/Modernism paradigm, borrowed from the theory of Modernism as sketched out by Marshall Berman, the paper challenges the assumption that modernism is merely a Western experience.  
The paper examines the connections between Orhan Pamuk as a Turkish modern through a critical analysis of his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City, in conjunction with his fictional protagonists from The White Castle. In both the memoir and the novel it becomes evident that the experience, conception and articulation of a “Turkish modern” requires an engagement (and a representation of engagement) and a synthesis—as opposed to “emulation” and “replication”—of Ottoman, Turkish and Western cultures. This is primarily achieved through literary intertextuality which borrows from a web of cultures, and which can be seen as a cultural and literary pursuit to resist the East-West dichotomy.

The author would like to thank Mara Malagodi and Rachel V. Harrison for reading first drafts of this paper.

The “Turkish Modern” and Modernism

Turkish modernism as represented by some contemporary Turkish novelists has been interpreted recently as a mere replication of the West [1]. From the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923—when an Ottoman Islamic rule came to an end and secularism replaced it—to present times, the “Turkish modern” has literally always meant a “process” “toward a modern and Western world” [2]. While some writers had observed and critiqued this new found modernism as simply an attempt to replicate the Soviet and European examples [3], others have engaged with it and have attempted to alter its “process” and its definition. This paper will focus on one such writer, Orhan Pamuk, whose international success since his winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006 has generated much interest and debate around the subject: what constitutes the “Turkish modern” in the works of Pamuk and how it differentiates from and engages with Western modernism are the driving questions of this paper.

In his article Kürşad Ertuğrul has attempted to sketch a transitional making of the “Turkish modern” as represented by three Turkish novelists active from the 1940s onwards. He has suggested that the first wave of writers such as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar were conservative and partly hostile to Western culture, thus were “concerned with preserving what is considered authentic culture” [4]. The second possibility of “constituting the Turkish modern” as represented by Oğuz Atay, on the other hand, was “open ended: it reaches beyond the limitations of the Turkish social-historical domain to create a new individual [...] existence while remaining critical of Western “individuality”” [5]. And, finally, the third possibility as represented by Orhan Pamuk, according to Ertuğrul, “expresses the dominant concept of ‘modernization’ in Turkey, which equates modernization with Westernization” [6].

What this paper is mainly concerned with is the third way in which Ertuğrul has analysed the constitution of the ‘Turkish modern’ as represented by Pamuk: “there is no wholeness, no self grounded in a traditional or “authentic” culture [in Pamuk’s characters]. The “Turkish modern” is a form of emulation, a full replication of the “Western modern”” [7]. I will suggest that the realization of this partial “replication” of the West in the works of his predecessors had actually geared Pamuk into an urge to mitigate “replication” and “emulation” and venture into a personal engagement and experimentation with the past Ottoman and Western cultures and Turkish modernism. Precisely in the same manner that had triggered modernism in Europe with its engagement with the East and its revival of the scientific, political and aesthetic developments of the Enlightenment period, so too has Pamuk intertwined the various cultures and their developments available to him in order to portray his own world and his concept of the Turkish modern. In fact, what makes the Turkish modern/modernism so unique in the works of Pamuk is not its constant seesaw political and cultural battle with the West as such, but rather, its constant attempt to retrieve Western accounts of the Turk (vice versa), where there is contained—despite various instances of orientalised depictions—a genuine but now obsolete Ottoman culture, and where a redefinition of a Turkish identity can be accessed by way of resisting the East-West dichotomy. 

Indeed, this modernization process is quite resonant with Marshall Berman’s idea that “going back can be a way to go forward: that remembering the modernisms of the nineteenth century can give us the vision and courage to create the modernisms of the twenty-first” [8]. Undoubtedly, the claim which could be made here is that modernism was predominantly an elitist, Western intellectual affair that deduced Eastern cultures to mere simulacrums. But it is worth pointing out that the majority of the Turkish artists and writers active after the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic—such as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar and Yahya Kemal—were very much influenced by Western artists and writers of the nineteenth-century—such as Flaubert, Nerval and Melling. Ironically, these grand Western writers and painters had in fact been partly influenced by Turkish/Ottoman culture—particularly nineteenth-century Istanbul. It is precisely this trans-cultural realization and revival which constitutes the “Turkish modern” in works of Pamuk. A refrain of Berman’s is quite significant here: “modernity can be said to unite all mankind,” for Pamuk’s works have by and large unified not only contemporary Turkish culture with the West, but also with history—East (Ottoman) and West (Europe) [9]. As Aylin Bayrakceken and Don Randall have suggested, Pamuk “does not see Turkey as an Eastern nation losing its soul to mistaken West-focused aspiration and identification. His understanding, on the contrary, puts forward an Istanbulite valorization of in-betweenness and East-West mixture. In this, precisely, resides Pamuk’s importance as a critic of Turkish society and as a contributor to debates on the legacies and contemporary meanings of cross-cultural relations” [10]. As such, Pamuk’s engagement with this very process of becoming/being modern suggests that Turkish representations of modernism are unique in comparison to Western modernism, but can simultaneously play a major role in the wider context and understanding of modernism. 

Rethinking Pamuk’s “Turkish Modern”

Pamuk’s first translated novel into English, The White Castle (Beyaz Kale), is a historical novel set in the Ottoman times during the mid-seventeenth-century, which, in the words of Pamuk, induced “a sense of excitement, [because he had] forced [himself] to be modernist and experimental” when writing it [11]. My reading of Pamuk’s White Castle will directly challenge Ertuğrul’s reading of the Western replicating protagonist, suggesting that it is, rather, an experiment of understanding the connections to a wider world by engaging with a Westerner through various discourses. In fact, Ertuğrul’s reducing of the protagonist’s impersonation of a Westerner as a simple “replication” and “emulation” has completely ignored the Ottoman theme at play in the novel which interconnects a personal dialectic with Western and Ottoman culture through intertextuality. I then move on to Pamuk himself and his experience of being a “Turkish modern” with an analysis of the Western literary intertextuality at work in his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City (İstanbul: Hatıralar ve Şehir), locating a striking similarity between the writer and his own protagonist from The White Castle

The White Castle

Pamuk’s use of the Ottoman theme alongside Western and Turkish literature in his works, particularly in The White Castle, has enabled him to create a new way of expressing and experiencing the Turkish modern. As Erdağ Göknar has pointed out, “Pamuk uses the Ottoman past [...] to take a critical look at the present” [12]. Pamuk’s distress towards the replication process of development of the Turkish Republic and contemporary Turkey has been expressed in “The Paris Review Interview”: “What they [the new founders of the Republic] had to do [...] was invent a strong local culture, which would be a combination—not an imitation—of the Eastern past and the Western present. I try to do the same kind of thing in my books” [13]. However, Pamuk’s use of the Ottoman past/theme is not limited to this. It constitutes a far greater relevance to his own position in Turkey and the wider world and his connections to an Ottoman and Western past; it is a source of originality. For instance, Pamuk has too often stressed that when he first went to America in 1985 and had encountered the vast and rich array of American literature, he felt intimidated: “So I regressed, went back to my “roots.” I realized that my generation had to invent a modern national literature” which would, in effect, alter and re-represent contemporary Turkish culture [14]. The idea of going back to an Ottoman culture which had been neglected since the mid-1920s was a partial attempt to “react to the older generation of novelists [...] [because] their subject matter was very narrow and parochial” [15]. 

By the word “modern” Pamuk’s work often suggests an intellectual and physical unification of all the cultures with which the Turk has come into contact. Thus, The White Castle can be seen to represent this cultural engagement which Pamuk considers as a way of constructing a “modern national literature.” As Pamuk has pointed out in his essay, “The White Castle Afterword,” his research before writing the novel had led him into works which edified—Western, Ottoman and Turkish—the intellectual and physical encounters between the Turks and various Westerners:

[some] details that figure in the book came not from the period in which it is set but from accounts of witnesses from other times: Istanbul’s scenic views, firework displays, and nighttime amusements (Antoine Galland, Lady Montagu, Baron de Tot); the sultan’s beloved lions and his lion zoo (Ahmet Refik); the Ottoman army’s Polish campaign (Ahmet Ağa’s Diary of the Siege of Vienna) [...] precautions against the plague (Helmuth K.B. Von Moltke’s Turkish letters); and the White Castle, from which I took my novel’s name (in Tadeutz Trevanian’s Journeys in Transylvania).[16]

That the substance and making of the novel itself required an astute grounding in the contacts between the Turk and Istanbul, the West and its “witnesses,” at once suggests that Pamuk has neither attempted to make his protagonist “replicate” or “emulate” his Western slave so as to suggest that modernism is Westernism, nor did he intend to create a tension which suggests superiority of one over the other (see below). Rather, Pamuk has attempted to mingle the various developments and works of the time—and beyond it—to show that both East and West can (and do) coincide together. Moreover, it suggests that modernism is not merely a Western affair, but also a Turkish (and perhaps even an Eastern) one.

An intellectual discourse between the Turkish protagonist, Hoja, and a Western slave enables for a unification of the two cultures in The White Castle. The novel tells the story of a Turkish Hoja (“master”) who becomes the host of a Venetian slave during the mid-seventeenth-century. Both interested in the arts, sciences and astronomy, they venture into various projects which one cannot do without the other, drawing from one another’s knowledge and experiences. They develop a fireworks display for the Sultan, write books about animals, and even produce a weapon to be used in the battle at the White Castle against the Poles. More importantly, they enter into a written discourse in an attempt to literate “Why am I what I am?” (49). When Hoja poses the question to his Venetian slave, the Venetian replies that only he could know who he is, but that he lacked the courage to explore the question. As punishment, Hoja sets his slave to work on showing how one could show this. The Venetian slave begins to recount his memories before he had become a slave, and even begins to write down his dreams. As time progresses, Hoja enters into a Hegelian “master-slave dialectic” with his slave [17]: 

He said we must sit at the two ends of the table and write facing one another: our minds, confronted by these dangerous subjects, would drift, trying to escape, and only in this way would we start on the path, only in this way could we strengthen each other with the spirit of discipline. (52)

The writing exercise creates a “path” for master and slave to engage with one another to the extent that they end up knowing almost everything about each other: “Thus in the space of two months I learned more about his life than I’d been able to learn in eleven years” (53). So similar their thoughts become, in fact, that both master and slave—Westerner and Easterner—know what the other is thinking. 

A physical interaction in The White Castle is another way in which a trajectory is created for Westerner and Easterner to unify. From the very beginning of the novel the narrator says that “The resemblance between myself and the man who entered the room was incredible! It was me there [...] for that first instant this was what I thought” (13). Thereafter, the master and the slave begin to explore this shocking resemblance by looking into the mirror and copying each other’s’ actions, showing how they have become almost one and the same: “The two of us were one person! This now seemed to me an obvious truth. It was as if I were bound fast [....] I made a movement to save myself, as if to verify myself. I quickly ran my hands through my hair. But he imitated my gesture [...] without disturbing the symmetry of the mirror image at all” (71). Indeed, it is not only the Ottoman Turk who has changed, for the Venetian also changes during these dialectical processes. 

Michael McGaha has rightly pointed out that The White Castle is a story which “uses a twisted, sadomasochistic relationship between a look-alike Ottoman scientist and his Venetian slave to suggest that, far from being diametrically opposite, East and West are in fact so similar as to be interchangeable” [18]. Indeed, by novels end it is impossible to differentiate between the Turk and the Venetian, for they have changed together during discourses which required an understanding and unification of each other’s’ beings and cultures. Rather than a “replication,” then, the intellectual and physical discourses carried out by the Ottoman Turk and the Venetian suggests a cultural engagement that enables a new modern to emerge. As Pamuk himself has stated, “I thought my master and the Italian slave would have a great deal to tell and teach each other” [19]. This unification—both in terms of the fictional characters and the intertextuality of Ottoman, Turkish and Western texts embedded within the novel—can perhaps be seen as Pamuk’s way of suggesting that the Turkish modern cannot merely be a simulacrum of the West, but that they are counterparts and that this relationship can enable and create a “path” towards a further understanding of the self and a creation of a Turkish modern.

Istanbul: Memories and the City

In Istanbul, like his protagonist, Hoja, Pamuk has entered into a written discourse with Westerners. Published fifteen years after White Castle (in English) the memoir combines Western depictions of nineteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul with the authors’ memories from the age of sixteen to twenty-two. By intertextually “unifying” his nineteenth-century Western writers and an Ottoman past, and then locating his experiences as a youth within them, it would not be inappropriate to suggest that Pamuk, like his protagonist, has perhaps attempted to understand “Why am I what I am?.” More importantly, the revival of a hybrid history of East and West intertwined with a personal experience of Istanbul’s landscape—which has made Pamuk an international phenomenon—is an example of Pamuk’s depiction of the “Turkish modern” as well as a “modern national literature.” It is worth analysing Pamuk’s intellectual engagement with his Western writers, who had made physical contact with Istanbul and the Turks, to understand how they perhaps represent his own understanding and construction of the Turkish modern through a new form of literature. 

Throughout his memoir Pamuk excessively mourns for the short supply of descriptions of a rich Ottoman culture which once used to exist—partly because the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, which suggested ‘emulation’ and ‘replication’ of Western European politics and cultures as a way of modernizing the country and its peoples, neglected and provoked the embracement of Ottoman culture. This is perhaps why he is so infatuated by Western travellers who had made voyages to Istanbul and complemented them with rare (and sometimes) candid accounts of their experiences and observations. Pamuk has said that

For people like me, Istanbullus with one foot in this culture and one in the other, the ‘Western traveller’ is often not a real person [....] But being unable to depend on tradition alone as my text, I am grateful to the outsider who can offer me a complementary version—whether a piece of writing, a painting, a film. (260)

Rather than seeing Westerners as outsiders, then, Pamuk considers their presence in Istanbul as “complementary versions” of a partly forgotten culture. The accounts which Gérard de Nerval and Théophile Gautier—to name only a few—had written about their time in Istanbul are informative writings which Pamuk has relied on as sources and depictions of the history of Istanbul for his novels, and indeed for himself.

Pamuk has drawn particular influence from Gautier, who, as an art critic, had the ability to describe the Istanbul scene with exquisite language. Gautier for Pamuk is a writer who was able to give a sincere account of the backstreets of poor neighbourhoods of Istanbul, despite his occasional depictions of the usual stereotypes and clichés of sultans, harems and cemeteries: “it is because Gautier, seasoned journalist that he was, took an interest in what his friend [Nerval] called the city’s ‘wings’, venturing out into its poorer headquarters to explore their ruins and their dark, filthy streets, to show Western readers that the poor neighbourhoods were just as important as the scenic views” (203). More importantly, Pamuk is amazed that every time he “read[s] about the unpainted, darkened, dilapidated wooden houses, the broken down fountains, the neglected tűrbes [mausoleum] with their fallen-in roofs and all the other things [Gautier and his French guide] observed during their walks” (205), he is reminded of the car trips he used to take with his father, remembering that these places have not changed, even one hundred years after Gautier described these lonely, rundown backstreets of Istanbul. This is indeed a technique which Pamuk has implemented within his own novels, to draw “from a critical vocabulary never before applied to Istanbul,” and to “put views into words” in order to capture Istanbul and its hűzűn (melancholy).

Nerval, on the other hand, seems to astound Pamuk with images of Istanbul which no longer exist. Pamuk laments that when looking at Melling’s paintings of the hills which he has lived all his life, he feels “like a ghost looking back on his life, to shudder in the face of time,” and that he has a similar sensation when reading Nerval’s Voyage en orient (197). Pamuk notes Nerval’s walks “from the Mevleni Dervish Lodge in Galata (which would be renamed Tűnel in fifty years’ time) to the area we today call Taksim—the same walk I would make 105 years later holding my mother’s hand” (197). Nerval had made his voyage to Istanbul during Ramazan (Ramadan), and “in his eyes, this was like going to Venice for Carnival. (Indeed, he describes Ramazan as a ‘fast’ and a ‘carnival’)” (199). The festivities during Nerval’s time in the city particularly stimulate a nostalgic feeling in Pamuk: “Nerval spent his Ramazan evenings watching Karagőz shadow theatre, taking in the lamplit city views, and going to cafes to listen to storytellers”—an image doubtlessly re-written for the Ottoman Istanbul scene in My Name is Red

According to Talat S. Halman, it “would not be incorrect to assert that Pamuk is at present, especially proceeding away from “influences” toward an authentic, sui generis art, toward a new synthesis [....] In a sense, Pamuk’s work in total represents a fictionalized yet veritable chronicle of Turkish life and culture caught in conflict between East and West in Ottoman times, also in transition from traditions to modernization” [20]. Indeed, Pamuk’s use of conflicting themes has undoubtedly forced him to reconsider the Turkish modern. But it goes without saying that perhaps Pamuk cannot consider himself as a Turkish modern unless East and West are synthesised and embraced, if not experienced, by resisting an East-West dichotomy through intertextuality. Although this relies on the notion that “going back can be a way to go forward: that remembering the modernisms of the nineteenth century can give us the vision and courage to create the modernisms of the twenty-first,” its originality in comparison to Western modernism relies on an Ottoman past in contact and in dialogue with the West (vice versa). Pamuk’s engagement with Nerval and Gautier represents this very process. In his interview with Angel Gurria-Quintana, Pamuk says that

The formula for originality is very simple—put together two things that were not together before. Look at Istanbul, an essay about the city and about how certain foreign authors—Flaubert, Nerval, Gautier—viewed the city, and how their views influenced a certain group of Turkish writers. Combined with this essay on the invention of Istanbul’s romantic landscape is an autobiography [....] Take risks and you will come up with something new. [21]


For Pamuk it is only by engaging (and representing engagement)—as opposed to “emulation” and “replication”—with both Ottoman Turkish and Western culture in which a “Turkish modern” can be conceived and articulated. I have suggested that in The White Castle Pamuk has intentionally intertwined various Western and Ottoman Turkish texts so as to combine and create an avant-garde trans-cultural writing. This has enabled him to create a trajectory in which his Ottoman master and his Venetian slave can enter into an intellectual and physical discourse. By doing so, they change together by indulging in many years of perpetual understandings of one another’s cultures. Furthermore, this new “modern national literature” has enabled Pamuk to not only criticize “replication” and “emulation” of Western modernism in Turkey from 1923 onwards, but also to create a new “path” to venture into new understandings and representations of the Turkish modern. From his autobiography, Istanbul, I have outlined a striking similarity between Pamuk and his Ottoman master from The White Castle. By entering into a dialogue with Nerval’s and Gautier’s travel notes of Istanbul, Pamuk attempts to situate himself within them, and by doing so represents that Turkish modernism is a simultaneous revival of the two cultures. Moreover, I have suggested that perhaps Pamuk considers himself a “Turkish modern” only to the extent that East and West are synthesised and embraced, if not experienced, by resisting an East-West dichotomy through this intertextual process. Though this modern example and experience is fictionalized in The White Castle, entering into an Ottoman Turkish dialogue with Nerval and Gautier—amongst others—in an autobiography could not make it any more explicit.


1. Kürşad Ertuğrul, “A Reading of the Turkish Novel: Three Ways of Constituting the “Turkish Modern,”” pp.635–652.

2. Ertuğrul, “A Reading of the Turkish Novel,” p.636.

3. Erdağ Göknar, “Orhan Pamuk and the “Ottoman” Theme,” p.35. It is also worth noting that Turkish modernism in recent years has been subject to many criticisms. During the late 1960s and the 1970s the idea of modernism denoted a negative meaning, associated mainly with the elites of Turkey. The most popular critique of Turkish modernism is directed at “Kemalist doctrine” which has come to be seen “as a patriarchal and antidemocratic imposition from above that has negated the historical and cultural experience of the people of Turkey.” See Sibel Bozdoğan and Reşat Kasaba, “Introduction” in Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey, pp.3-13.

4. Ertuğrul, “A Reading of the Turkish Novel,” p.635.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid, p.650.

8. Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, p.36.

9. Ibid, p.15.

10. Aylin Bayrakceken and Don Randall, “Meetings of East and West: Orhan Pamuk's Istanbulite Perspective,” p.202.

11. Orhan Pamuk, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (2009, 2010. pp.184-85.

12. Erdağ Göknar, “Orhan Pamuk and the “Ottoman” Theme,” p.37.

13. Angel Gurria-Quintana, “The Paris Review Interview,” in Orhan Pamuk, Other Colours, p.370.

14. Ibid, p.366.

15. Ibid, p.367.

16. Orhan Pamuk, “The White Castle Afterword,” Other Colours, p.251.

17. The “master-slave dialectic,” briefly defined, consists of a “self” recognizing itself in the “other,” wherein absolute knowledge or spirit can be achieved. See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by A.V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 111-123. This is a point also made by Vangelis Calotychos in “Thorns in the Side of Venice? Galanaki’s Pasha and Pamuk’s White Castle in the Global Market,” pp.243-260.

18. Michael McGaha, Autobiographies of Orhan Pamuk: The Writer in His Novels, p. xii.

19. Orhan Pamuk, “The White Castle Afterword,” p.249.

20. Talat S. Halman, “Foreword,” in Essays Interpreting the Novels of Novelist Orhan
Pamuk: The Turkish Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, pp. ii-iii. See also Talat S. Halman, A Millennium of Turkish Literature: A Concise History, pp. 124-125.

21. Angel Gurria-Quintana, “The Paris Review Interview,” p.377.


Bayrakceken, Aylin and Randall, Don. “Meetings of East and West: Orhan Pamuk's Istanbulite Perspective.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 46:3 (2005), 191-204.

Berman, Marshall. All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso, 1983.

Bozdoğan, Sibel and Kasaba, Reşat. “Introduction,” in Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Calotychos, Vangelis. “Thorns in the Side of Venice? Galanaki’s Pasha and Pamuk’s White Castle in the Global Market” in Greek Modernism and Beyond, ed. by Dimitris Tziovas. Lanham: Rowman & Lettlefield, 1997.

Ertuğrul, Kürşad. “A Reading of the Turkish Novel: Three Ways of Constituting the “Turkish Modern.”” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41 (2009), 635–652.

Göknar, Erdağ. “Orhan Pamuk and the “Ottoman” Theme.” World Literature Today 80:6 (2006), 34 38

Halman, Talat S. “Foreword,” in Essays Interpreting the Writings of Novelist Orhan Pamuk: The Turkish Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, ed. by Nilgun Anadolu-Okur. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2009.

A Millennium of Turkish Literature: A Concise History, ed. by Jayne L. Warner. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2011.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

McGaha, Michael. Autobiographies of Orhan Pamuk: The Writer in His Novels. Michigan: The University of Utah Press, 2008.

Pamuk, Orhan. Istanbul: Memories and the City. Trans. by Maureen Freely. London: Faber and Faber, 2006

The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (2009). Trans. by Nazım Dikbaş. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Other Colours. Trans. by Maureen Freely. London: Faber and Faber, 2007.

The White Castle. Trans. by Victoria Holbrook. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.

Sefik Huseyin is a writer and independent researcher currently residing in London. His creative work can be found in publications such as Fringe, Scythe and Straylight, among others.

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