All posts by joshualevkowitz

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Hip-Hopistan:Inside Greater Kurdistan’s Nascent Hip Hop Scene

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An amateur rapper walks off stage after a frustrating concert in Sleimani, Iraq

The bass pounded from the speakers, but the crowd sat idly by.  Amir, an amateur Kurdish rapper, struggled to beat out his raps, completely failing to move the crowd.  He left the stage in Azadi Park frustrated.  Amir saw many challenges facing the hip-hop scene in Sleimiani, quoting Tupac, his foremost  hip-hop influence: “I see no changes.”  The crowd did not respond positively to this “stigmatized art form” as Amir put it before walking away.

At a refugee camp just a few hours away, Swedish born rapper Serhado, a Turkish Kurd, performed for Syrian Kurds.  At the height of his concert, the crowd chanted and swayed along to his popular anthem Ez Kurdistan Im (I am Kurdistan).

The changing dynamics in the Middle East have  placed Kurds onto the regional stage.  The Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a country of their own who are currently divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.  These outcasts from the predominately Arab Middle East have become linked to globalization including the international hip-hop scene.

The humble origins of hip-hop began in the south Bronx borough of New York where DJs sampled soul and funk records. MCs would rap over these beats, and as the genre matured, artists began to talk about the troubles of African Americans living in a white society.  Many Kurds today are attracted to hip-hop because they find common ground with this struggle.

They fight to preserve their own cultural distinctiveness.  Within Turkey, the Kemalist conception of a single Turkish identity stated that Kurds were actually mountain Turks who had forgotten their native language.  In southern Kurdistan, Saddam Hussein’s infamous Anfal genocide against Iraqi Kurds wiped out hundreds of villages and killed over fifty thousand civilians.

In the song “We Exist” Sipan raps “We been let down and let on so many times.”  He concludes that he is a “true K-U-R-D,” meaning  “Peshmerga by choice, guerilla when its necessary, carry AK 47s ‘cause it’s necessary.”

Today, many of the Kurdish youth use hip-hop as an outlet and a bridge to build a community across their diaspora.  Just as MCs in America have raised consciousness on social issues, Kurdish MCs, such as Serhado’s “I am Kurdistan”, make hip-hop in order to discuss geo-political realities and provide hope to those Kurds in search of a united Kurdistan.  Kurdish hip-hop remains in an infant stage, but it is developing its own style and identity.

American hip-hop only made its debut with Kurds in the mid-90s, but as a genre, it actually shares strong elements with traditional Kurdish music. Kurdish bend is a musical style that involves improvisational rhymes similar to the practice of free styling.  In both, the songs focus is on the stream of consciousness rap. Linguistically, Kurdish words normally begin with a consonant.  The consonant-vowel-consonant forms a legato articulation, producing a smooth, connected sound.  However, Iraqi Kurds were ruled under the nationalist Baathist party until the recent American-led invasion of Iraq.  The largely staccato Arabic language influenced music coming out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus, Kurdish rappers’ mastery of these two opposing articulations results in an engaging, versatile flow.

Even with these links, Kurds generally perceive hip-hop in a negative light since many are only aware of the genre’s commercial transformation into the misogynistic and violent world of gangster rap. Amir said that people in Sleimani, which claims to be the most liberal city in Iraq, characterize “rap music with murder and drugs.  People here feel shamed by these songs. They’d rather listen to songs about politics.” From Amir’s account, the hip-hop scene in Greater Kurdistan still requires a sound fan base for the hip-hop scene to survive.  In order for Kurdish hip-hop to gain widespread appeal, artists must look past the causeless genre of gangster rap, and instead harken back to the hip-hop of social injustice and protest.

Hama Rapper, who has been rapping over twelve years, reminisces about Kurdish Iraq’s “Golden Age of Hip-Hop” from 2007-2009. He jokes, “I found out about rap from the wrong cassette.”  Hip-Hop in Kurdish Iraq, he believes, has become too politicized creating many divisions.  The slightest reference toward a certain political party can forever alienate fans that have particular political affiliations.  Hama Rapper says his career became blocked by his connection to the political party Goran because certain news stations refused to play his songs

However, Hama Rapper, believes the non-lyrical aspects of hip-hop still remain the main obstacles to the emerging scene.  He does not see much potential because of the lack of record producers and the few beat makers “create boundaries to expressing yourself.” Most Kurdish hip-hop borrows American and European beats.  Hama Rapper, however, incorporated samples from popular Kurdish folksongs into his hit track “Horaman.” He believes there must be more of an effort on constructing a unique sound to Kurdish hip-hop.

Hip-Hop started off as voices for the voiceless, and it represented people on the social fringe. As the Kurdstry to move from the periphery to the center in determining a new Middle East, this music has the potential to build support for their nationalist cause.  Just as Sipan rapped “We Exist” the music can span the divide between the currently divided peoples.

The Kurds have been culturally isolated for far too long. The peshmerga fighters have fought in the mountains since the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916.  With the geography  of the Middle East uncertain, the next wave of Kurdish resistance should not focus on the traditional battlefields.   With the world still knowing little about the Kurds, Kurdish rappers including Serhado and Sipan have used their own adaptation of hip-hop with its simple, catchy lyrics to articulate their people’s concerns and aspirations within Greater Kurdistan .  Even Abdullah Ocalan, the charismatic, imprisoned leader who founded the militant Kurdistan Workers’s Party (PKK), recognizes this “awakening”.  In his Newroz speech delivered from prison in the Sea of Marmara, he said: “Time for the guns to fall silent and for ideas to speak.”  Cue up the vocals and let the war of words begin.

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The Enterprising Spirit in Domiz

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A Syrian Refugee plays a rebab inside his tent on the outskirts of Domiz Camp.

As the conflict in Syria escalates,  an increasing number of Syrians have crossed the Iraqi border.  In April 2012, approximately a hundred people came through each day, but that number has escalated closer to seven hundred today. Domiz Refugee Camp, the largest in Iraq, continues to grapple with providing shelter and sustenance for forty to seventy thousand inhabitants, depending on various estimates.

While the humanitarian issues loom large, the concentration of people and the lack of services within the crammed tent city provides great potential for the entrepreneurially minded. Some residents have begun businesses offering goods and services in order to be economically self-reliant.

With UNCHR and other IGOs overwhelmed by logistical challenges, many of the camp inhabitants’ economic wants have gone unfulfilled. In true enterprising spirit, occupants have capitalized on these needs.  One such entrepreneur sits underneath an umbrella near the main gate of the camp.  The old man waits for newcomers to leave the UNHCR offices so that he can provide laminating services.  He charges one thousand Iraqi Dinars (roughly .86 cents) to protect newly printed asylum-seeker documents.

As one continues down the main road bisecting the camp, merchants sell everything from cigarettes to stuffed animals.  A group of men huddle around one stall to find the appropriate adapter for their new satellite dish to be installed outside of their tent.  The city of Duhok is a mere twenty-minute ride from the camp, so some hawkers will even take orders for specific products.

On the left side of the road, Kurdistan Café sells falafel and shawarma in true Syrian style, grilling the sandwich with chicken fat. The restaurant has been such a success that the owner has expanded the adjacent building into a bakery. He saved enough from the profits to move his family out of the camp and into an apartment in Duhok.

With such success stories, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and IGO’s lack of support and advising for business initiatives seems surprising.  Why would they not want more of the camp’s inhabitants to be financially independent? Such incentives could ease pressures faced at Domiz, and an advisory council could help match jobs with available labor throughout the region.

Micro enterprise boards can provide beneficiaries short-term loans for small business initiatives. Micro financing has been successful in refugee camps from Guinea to Colombia.  Income generating services not only provide refugees with capital, but can also have a positive social impact within the camp.

The short answer for why this is not happening is the issue of permanence.  Intraregional refugees have historically created problems for the host countries; such as the instability brought on by Palestinians living in Lebanon.  Some fear Syrian Kurds could instigate similar conflict in Iraq spilling the Syrian crisis across the border as has already happened in Lebanon and Jordan.

Still, the Kurdish Regional Government presents itself as the protector of all Kurds so it cannot be seen turning away Syrian Kurds at the border. Furthermore, the Iraqi Kurdish Region faces population issues and an influx of Syrian Kurds would provide a population increase and strengthen the Kurdish Democratic Party’s political base.

The KRG has made it easier for refugees to move around the region through the issuing of residency cards.  Many refugees are reluctant to search for jobs or undergo business ventures because they hope to return to Syria.  With this mentality, the refugees will cause more of a drain on the national and international development programs.  Instead, active encouragement from the government can find employment for the refugees and tap into this skilled labor force.

Organizations involved in micro finance or consulting need to reach out to residents within Domiz.  A local musician plays the stringed rebab as the dusk approaches the camp.  He carried his instruments from Syria and wants to find a performance space nearby.  Although the people here have been bruised and scarred, the hopeful signs of business within the camp prove that their enterprising spirit burns on.

The People’s Tea House

Domino pieces rapidly slap onto the table in the opening salvo. The tempo increases with the soft chimes of stirring spoons. The crashing sounds of saucers begin to build. Layered over the percussion section, the din of chatter completes the daily opus heard at the Shaab teahouse in Slemani, Iraq.

In the traditional fabric of Kurdish life, the teahouse became the space for men to socialize akin to bars in the West. Shaab, since its foundation in Sleimani in 1952, acts as a sanctuary for denizens of the city to participate in the developments of public life.

Shaab stands apart from the rest of the teahouses that dot the city because of its relationship with the Iraqi Kurdish struggle for autonomy. I sat down for a cup of sugary tea with owner Baker Sharif to discuss the history of the place.

“This teahouse was originally a hotel known as Amira, until my father, Sharif, came from Howraman. Many of Sleimani’s inhabitants helped him open Shaab.” 

The teahouse’s name comes from the Arabic word for people or nation because “my father recognized its significance,” Baker claims. He continues, “On any day, this teahouse represents our people: politicians, intellectuals, artists, laborers, clerics and lay people alike.” Kurds, mostly men, congregate here to discuss current affairs over several cups of tea.

Baker has worked at Shaab since he was seven years old. Lifting his teacup with calloused fingers, he begins telling me about Kurdish Mukhabarat agents entering the teahouse as early as 1973. They would spy on political agitators, notably members from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). “The PUK claimed this to be their unofficial headquarters [after 1975],” Baker says as he points to the floor. Eventually, employees and patrons of the teahouse were able to spot these agents and adeptly switch their conversations to trivial topics. “Everyone would see them coming in and go back to playing dominoes,” Baker slyly smiles. 

As Saddam’s Ba’athist presence became more repressive in Sleimani in the late 1970s, inhabitants had limited knowledge on Kurdish political movements and rebel offensives happening in the mountains. Baker says, “At nighttime, Peshmerga came into the city and would deliver nationalistic pamphlets here.” The Shaab teahouse became an essential link between the PUK Peshmerga and the people of Sleimani.

Other newspapers were also distributed to the teahouse in order to evade the heavy hand of the Ba’athist regime. Komalah, a Kurdish group influenced by Maoist ideology, produced the newspaper “A New Way,” and delivered it to Shaab afterhours.  As the Ba’athists were able to completely isolate Sleimani by day, dissenters at the teahouse were able to stoke the Kurdish revolutionary spirit throughout the night.

The teahouse was a safe haven for all Kurdish people because people respected its pluralistic makeup. The diverse bunch of “PUK, KDP, Communists, and other activists” would engage in lively debate over a cup of tea and a game of backgammon.

As the Iran-Iraq war reached its apex in the late 1980s, Kurdish soldiers of the Iraqi military defected in increasing numbers.  Baker knew the fate of these defectors if the Mukhabarat found them so he utilized abandoned hotel rooms on the second floor of the teahouse as a refuge for up to twelve soldiers at a time. On one occasion, police entered the teahouse demanding to be taken to the second floor. Baker recounted, “I just told them that there was a lot of dirt and storage equipment up there. I kept talking until they left.”  At that time, the poet Mohammed Omer Osman, known today as the General of Autumn, was hiding upstairs. Contemporary Kurdish poetry would not have been the same without the teahouse’s protection of Osman.

After the Gulf War in 1991, Shaab once again became an important meeting point for the Peshmerga coming down from the mountains.  Important leaders today such as Nawshirwan Mustafa, Mohammed Salih, and others would meet there to discuss politics.

Apart from this discourse , Kurds living abroad used the teahouse as a dependable place to send remittances for their family.  The teahouse served an essential link between the Kurdish diaspora and those Kurds trying to reconstruct their lives in post-war Iraq.

Today, the Shaab teahouse continues to be the backbone of social life in Sleimani.  Due to the teahouse’s legacy, the government sponsored renovations in 2004 and 2012. Looking around the packed room, Baker says, “This place is as vibrant as ever.” 

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Men gather over backgammon boards at Shaab Teahouse

As Shaab’s atmosphere of lively chatter and cigarette smoke swirls around, the Kurds’ tenacious struggle for identity becomes all the more understood. 

The Black Lips at Ala Center

The Black Lips Bring Rock and Roll to Mesopotamia by J. Levkowitz

On Saturday, September 29th, the Black Lips walked onto the stage of a small college in Erbil, Iraq. This show was a detour from their greater Middle East tour in Cairo, Amman, Dubai, and Lebanon.

Had the band members not already purchased tickets to northern Iraq during the summer, the show might not have happened due to difficulties between the band and the original venue. Fortunately, an avid fan offered the stage last minute at the Ala Center for the Atlanta-based band.

A crowd of roughly fifty sat on plastic chairs and listened to the band’s hour set, comprised mostly of the recent 2011 album Arabia Mountain (based on a mountain in Georgia). The band did not have proper amplifiers and the drummer beat a tambourine onto his lonely snare drum.

The stripped down sound fit the environment of a city that had never before witnessed an American band of such fervor. Several people walked out of the show after only a few seconds into Ian Saint Pe’s raw guitar solo.

The Black Lips in Erbil, Iraq (credit: J. Levkowitz/In Parentheses)

Everyone became more comfortable as the set progressed. More men entered and stood in the back. I broke out into my own frantic seizure of a dance, hoping others would join in. However, it was to no avail. Besides the steady stream of flash photography, all the spectators sat conservatively in their seats.

The highlight of the concert were three university students that had come very early to the show. They had never heard of the Black Lips, but they were studying English and were very excited to see the band. Although my fantasy of them throwing their hijabs at the band onstage did not come into fruition, they did softly tap their feet in rhythm to the catchy songs. And in a society where most of the women are expected to keep a stone-like face, this was certainly a breakthrough.

At the end of the set, the singer Cole Alexander thanked everyone in Kurdish and jumped off stage. Catching up with him after the show, he told me, “The tour has certainly been a learning experience.” They recently lost one show in Jordan due to an impromptu show earlier outside of Jerusalem.

We discussed the importance of the trailblazing Black Lips. As Western bands in the 70s and 80s paved the way for the typical world tour route in America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, it is inspiring to see new bands forming contacts in the Middle East to build up its Rock and Roll culture. The Red Hot Chili Peppers recently played in Lebanon and in Israel

Alexander spoke about the heavy interest in the region for metal, but he hoped to see more punk bands in the near future. He was open to another tour if the conditions in the future were ripe. And even though he said there was no real objective of the tour except for the band’s wanderlust, this concert provided cultural exposure to Iraqi people that had only previously experienced the American military presence. Thank you Black Lips for helping build up a new bridge in the region.

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How Not to Shape Tomorrow’s Leaders by J. Levowitz

This past week has been one of my busiest in a while. Hours spent on creating lesson plans. Daily workshops on managing the classroom.  Hundreds of new names to remember before school starts.  On top of this all, I was asked to design the welcoming board outside my second grade classroom.  Never working well under pressure, I made a grave mistake among the confusion.

We all can remember the welcoming board from our formative school years.  Ms. Willis, my 4th grade teacher, had a diorama of dinosaurs to greet me as  I marched up the hallway.  This animation inspired me, made me hungry for the knowledge she was prepared to impart to me each day .

The board stood there. Staring at me. This arduous TASK impeding me from the other hundred things I needed to get done.  I decided to be bold, take big strides, and trust my intuition.  Upon a quick glance at the art supplies in the corner, I picked up the first ream of paper.  Unrolling it, the paper had red bricks printed upon it.  I went to work, cutting and stapling, until the facade of a brick wall came into being.

It is important to quickly note the layout of the school. There are two buildings: the main one and the smaller classrooms in the back for the younger children. Upon entering the second grade, the students were promoted to learn in the primary building.

The students to occupy my classroom would be entering for the first time.  They were actually made this same promise the year before, but due to poor performance on annual exams, they were held back for another year in the cramped hallways that they had been walking through since kindergarten.  They were reminded of this each day when most of their peers left them in the courtyard to enter in with the older kids.

This wall needed to be a symbol that addressed these fragile minds. I wanted something to empower them, make them march up the hall like I did in elementary school, with true grit between their baby teeth.  They would be entering these halls as students for the first time and the message needed to embolden them to beat their chests and let the school know that this year would be different; in this year, they would demand their education instead of passively sitting in the back for years.  No longer would they be left behind. No more would they hear, “Your older brother was such a bright and good boy. Why did you not turn out like him.”

I saw that my obstacle was their obstacle.  I cut out a big star-like figure and pasted it over the center of the faux brick wall.  Before I could curb my passion, animated bombs were omnipresent on the display.  I entitled it: “BREAKING INTO 2A.” They would break into the new building with an unchecked zeal. Staring at the finished piece, I started to breath again.

The Arabic teacher turned the corner and shrieked, “What is this?!”

I calmly explained to her the concept of seizing the day.

“You cannot promote bombs in our school. For too long, us Iraqis have feared them and now you will teach the children that they are okay.”

“Well then. I guess I did not really think of it like that.”

My mind started to race.  I wanted to inspire these children and I became too wrapped up in this idealism that I forgot the practical message I would be sending to the Iraqi leaders of tomorrow.

I do usually pride myself as someone culturally sensitive.  Never before have I fallen into such a self-made pitfall.  This wall once again stared, but now it became a blunder, grinning back at me.

Throughout the day other teachers chimed in.  “I like your bombs,” one Lebanese woman with a Russian accent sneered.

I traveled several thousand miles to be a teacher, and I would be fired before the first day? What would the parents think? What would the administration think? And most importantly, what would the students think?

I quietly left after work, with my spirit broken.  I hope I can find a way to remedy the situation before I lose the respect of my children.  I hope things only get easier from here, but in such a dynamic environment, if I continue to exude such daftness I did, then this year will only be uphill.

Suleimania and Mahmoud- Kurdish Nationalist Figure

First Thoughts on Kurdistan

Upon arrival at Ataturk International Airport, I had nothing but time before my flight to Suleimania, Iraq- my home for the upcoming school year.  Pressing through a fifteen hour flight binging on the limited selection of romance comedies and complimentary whiskey, I felt goaded to take a long walk through the airport.

I ended up strolling to the second floor lounge, chatting with a Belorussian guitarist who was headed to Bahrain to play a weekly gig in a posh hotel.  He had to leave abruptly, but, simultaneously, a stout man walked over and took his spot.

“Where are you flying to?” I squeaked- my voice was so strained from sleep deprivation.

He looked askance and muttered, “Suleimania.”

“Wow! So am I. This will be my first time in Iraq.”

He turned his broad shoulder to face me, locking onto me with his beady black eyes, “Please call it Kurdistan.”

With my tongue hanging out, he brusquely walked off.  I let the word ruminate throughout my head and slowly coming forward to my lips: “Kurdistan.”  Damn and here I thought Palestine was a hot issue.

Time rolled by and I found myself spacing out, half-sober in front of the customs line at the airport in Suleimania.  The officer must have seen the delirium in my eyes.  He took my passport, thumbed through it, stamped it twice, and waved me through.  When I made it to the other side, I nimbly opened my passport and read my newest prize.  In small print “Iraq” was written, towered by “KURDISH REGION” in bold font.

Although I have been here 40 something odd hours, I have started to compile a mental list of key observations.

1. Uni-brows seem to be in vogue.

2. The Kurds tend to first pour tea from their cups into saucers, preferring to sip it that way.

3. People generally have been less responsive to me when I speak in Arabic, to a greater degree than when I speak English.

It hit me that Kurdistan is a place where a historically oppressed minority, the little guy, the historic Poland of the Middle East, had started to make strides toward taking control of their political destiny- due to a large part to American military might.  Some Kurds portray George Bush as their liberator. I met one merchant who claimed to have named his son after the former president.The Kurdish people are damn proud.  Their flag is omnipresent.  Only once did I see the actual Iraqi flag and it was flanked by the official Kurdish flag on all sides.

Surrounded by arid mountains, Suleimania is fertile with construction sites everywhere.  Near my apartment, the skeleton of a roller coaster exists with the beginnings of a Ferris Wheel lying on its side.  In a region with tradition representing  the status quo,  the Kurdish people have replaced this habit with progress in an attempt to open themselves up to the world and shed off the negative connotations that Iraq brings to mind.

Until I become more apt in distinguishing between the Kurds, Arabs, Turkomens, and other inhabitants of the city, I am bound to continue making unintentional offensive remarks. It seems unavoidable.  However, I will try to develop an agility to the dynamics on the ground to provide comprehensive news to our readers.Friday Morning 8 am

Israel’s other race problem

At the turn of the twentieth century, Europeans started to immigrate in greater number to the United States, facing mortal dangers on their transatlantic journeys.  The American government eventually reacted with the Immigration Act of 1924 in order to restrict southern and eastern Europeans from entering the country.  Israel today is facing similar problems with migrants, most notably from South Sudan and Eritrea,  embarking on their own treacherous journeys through Egypt to reach the port city of Eilat.  These migrants face rape, torture, and organ theft by Bedouin smugglers on their grim walk  through the Sinai Desert.

These African migrants hopes at obtaining security and economic prosperity have taken a sharp turn for the worse as race riots have erupted in reaction to the influx of migrants.  On June 4th, an apartment of two Eritreans was set on fire with a nearby spray painted warning: “Get out of the neighborhood.”  Fortunately no one was injured in the fire.   Many Israelis have protested in recent weeks at the estimated 60,000 African migrants that are now present in the country, labeling them as “infiltrators” and a “cancer” to the Jewish homeland.  Many Israelis believe these asylum-seekers have raised the level of crime in cities such as Tel Aviv and fear that they will take precious jobs from a country that already faces serious issues in the housing and job sectors.

On June 11th, a group of refugees, mostly composed of Eritreans and South Sudanese, protested in front of the United Nations mission in Tel Aviv.  They chanted against the official announcement released last week that all illegal immigrants would have to turn themselves within the next week or face immediate deportation.  The migrants proclaimed that this was an infringement on international refugee law.   For example, Eritreans who have fled their countries current dictatorship will certainly face danger if they are forced to return home.  Sudanese, on the other hand, will be viewed as traitors in their native country  because of the hostile Israeli-Sudanese relations.   However, Israeli officials site that citizens of countries that it has diplomatic relations with, such as South Sudan and Ethiopia, would not face mortal danger if forced to return back.

Many have been quick to judge these announcements as a result of racism.  However, these charges may oversimplify the issues at hand.  Israel’s history is one of refugees with people from the Middle East and North Africa migrating to the country in the mid-twentieth century.  Recently in the early 1990s, Israel welcomed in Ethiopian Jews, also known as Beta Israel, with the current community estimated at 120,000.  The community still experiences difficulties including allegations that several Israeli blood banks were caught disposing of Ethiopian donations out of fear that their blood was tainted with HIV/AIDS.  Although these two separate periods of immigration faced severe challenges, both groups have been able to make substantial progress in Israeli society.  Thus, although there might a degree of racism in recent protests, Israeli society has been proven to overcome the xenophobic elements that plague most countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu states that Israel is a “Western liberal democracy” that is “safe for all.”  However in light of recent events, many criticize the upcoming deportation as the Israeli version of Kristallnacht, a 1938 series of attacks against Jews in Nazi Germany.  Whether or not this is mere sensationalism, Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East will continue to face sharp criticism until they find a sustainable solution to their refugee problem.