Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging of War

They took the New York Times on a war tour. The Battle For Pakistan it was called when the magazine finally published the photographs their boys had so carefully constructed and bought back. They had all the elements that would suggest valor, fear, desperate battles, the struggle of ‘a state’ against an unseen but clearly fearsome enemy. Though to my eye it appeared to be a lot of pictures of Pakistani soldiers ‘posing’ – the kinds of pictures I know these soldiers often pose for whenever I have had to photograph them. They know the routine – it is a veritable war zone cat walk, Pakistan’s Next Top Soldier! There are ‘buckets’ of IEDs, emptied villages, men behind bars wearing their self incriminating, evidence acceptable in our modern courts of war, skull caps and beards. The Battle For Pakistan, a nation of 170 million, with a cultural and ethnic diversity that baffles most, was apparently being fought against a few hundred men with outdated guns and plastic buckets IEDs!

They also took CNN on one, all expenses paid, luxury jaunt around the Swat ‘war zone’. Their reporter, breathless and in awe of his actually being inside this valley. Pakistan military confronts Taliban in key Swat city is a breathless regurgitation of the voice of the Army, the reporter not even attempting to ask any hard questions. Dressed in the requisite ‘toy soldier’ garb of multi-pocket pants and manly watch, it appears that he is attempting more to celebrate his presence in a ‘hard’ zone than actually doing any reporting. The soldiers languish in the background, looking bored and at ease. Some questioned are raised – but none that would break the ‘spell’ of this great war. Kills are celebrated by some army spokesperson who i am sure off camera is caring father, husband, lover or son.Everything that the dead lying around the valley of Swat are not. A collection of random weapons – most look like they were from the early 20th century are laid out on tables, and some men – less than 5 are paraded in front of the journalists. Who are these men? What is their story? What are their crimes? What are their rights? We do not ask – they are ‘Taliban’ says someone and that is enough. The war looks like it is going well.

What should have been no more than a police action 2 years ago, is now being sold as Pakistan’s great war to protect America! A see-how-we-love you performance piece funded by American dollars and fueled by Pakistani greed.

What has happened in Swat remains largely unknown. The media has been blocked from entering. Refugees streaming out of the region – expelled in fact because they were ordered to leave or feared random slaughter from the Army, speak about there being no war in the valley, and the killing of innocents who are then paraded as ‘Taliban’ fighters.

We will also not know what has happened in Swat because few if any of the foreign journalists working on covering the region have any idea or interest in the social, economic, and political history of the area. These people have no stories. Pakistan is largely covered by journalists who are ill equipped to report on it. They do not speak any of its languages, they have little or no knowledge of its history, they do not understand its ethnic groups, their histories, or even the fundamental political history of the nation since its creation, and definitely not prior to its separation from India. They know little or nothing, other than what they need to know looking down through the telescope of the ‘war against terror’.

Slugging around a few cliches’ mostly picked up in elite living rooms in Islamabad, they venture out in righteous conviction that this is a war against the ‘Taliban’ – a word that today incorporates pretty much any entity we wish to place inside it and hence has no meaning at all! And yet, we are at war against this abstraction, quite like our war against ‘terror’ and that other one against ‘drugs’. In theaters soon – the war against ‘angst’!

The people of Swat, much like the people of Waziristan, or Mohmand, or Bajaur, or Mardan or any other ‘conflict’have no history, no political-economy, no agency, no connections to the wider nation, no memory, no emotions, no love or longings, and no human capacity for creating culture, life, society and values. They are just dead bodies, ‘Taliban’, refugees, that scuttle around as we need them.

I suppose some of them are being ‘professional’ i.e. ‘do your job and shut up!’. It means never asking the editors any questions, returning to challenge assumptions, attempting to offer insights based on their experience, working to alter the ‘angles’ being created in towers in Manhattan. You give them the pictures they want, and the best of them are extremely good at it.

I have to believe however that these photographers are smarter than their works suggest. They have to be. I have to believe that they are just subsuming their intelligence to deliver to the demands of what today are clearly even more exalted jobs; paid positions or contract positions with major magazines whose budgets can only hold a few.

I am reminded of something that Paolo Pellegrin admitted to after his coverage of the evacuation of the settlers from Gaza. His statement revealed a large gap between the theatricality and emotions that were created in the images – a necessity to support the master narrative of that ‘pull out’. That is, the wrenching decision that Israel had to make and the incredible concessions she was prepared to offer, and the suffering she was prepared to inflict on her own citizens, for the sake of ‘peace’ with the Palestinians. The photographs repeatedly show determined, pious, righteous, resisting settlers as Israeli police ‘fight’ to evict them from their homes. The world watch with a mixture of pity and awe and the photographers delivered the images that captured these scenes. Many went on to win major photo awards that also showed the ‘innocent’ settlers even single handedly resisting the determination of the Israeli forces. A heroic strugle, a heroic people, a grand national sacrifice, a nation torn, a people wounded, families destroyed, lives interuppted, all for peace.

And yet, while narrating his work, Paolo offered this incredible insight on his Magnum In Motion piece about the Gaza evacuations called The Evacuation – you can hear his words by clicking on Image #18 that shows Israeli police dragging a settler onto a waiting bus:

This obviously actually happened, and these [the images] are documents of real moments. But you felt that it was also a theater. The event was at some level orchestrated and in some cases the arrangement that was made was that the settlers in a particular community or settlement decided that they could not walk away from the settlement on their own feet because that was not the way that they wanted to leave. So they decided [that] they were going to be dragged away. That it was a decision. And that was an element in this story, the fact that obviously this was happening, but at the same time it was also the result of two parts (parties?) coming together and each with their own agenda.

There is a gap, between the intelligence and awareness of the photographer, and the photographs he returns with to fulfil the story he has been asked to deliver. Even the Magnum In Motion piece maintains the emotional and pathos atmosphere of the piece, at no time allowing any suggestion that this entire event or certainly major portions of it was also political theater. The piece ends with the heroic and lament ridden music of the Israeli national anthem the Hatikva – a shockingly poor choice given that the settlers were being pulled out from occupied territories! The designers of the piece remain true to the story that is being packaged, the emotions that are being sold, the angle that is accepted, agreed to and acceptable to the world. And certainly not be coincidence, the angle that the Israeli government, its think tanks, lobbyists and pundits defined for us.

Photojournalism and photography too easily depoliticizes what it documents, elevating the visible act that is otherwise mired in various forces outside of the photograph, to being seen as ‘complete’ and ‘true’ in and of itself.

The photographer’s mind and body can sense that he is part of something more than just ‘real’ events, that he has become part of a performance, and within that performance, complete with its pathos and sorrow, he has to continue to work and shoot the ‘right’ angles, the right emotions, the right ‘feel’ so as to not ruin the whole thing for the rest of the audience – the editors, the readers in the papers the following morning. Besides Paolo, who obviously realized that he was playing a part in a script that someone else had written for him, there were hundreds of other photographers. The same hundreds by the way that are repeatedly prevented from access to Gaza, or Jenin or any number of other sites in the occupied territories.

When They take us somewhere, we should ask ourselves why!

Which is precisely what the embedded journalists now touring the ‘war’ zone with the Pakistani army ought to be doing. Why are they being taken? Where are they being taken? Why now and not before or after? A modicum of skepticism would be useful even when producing what are clearly ‘filler’ mutli-media pieces to feed the ravenous hunger of the 24-7, multi-channel needs of our the business of modern news.

Kamran Asdar Ali,  acting director of the South Asia Institute and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin, has written a valuable piece called Pakistan’s Troubled “Paradise on Earth” in the Middle East Research & Information Project (MERIP). He points out again that:

The Taliban have plainly appealed to smoldering anti-feudal resentments in the Swat valley in recruiting their cadre. A handful of families own the fruit orchards and cow pastures that are the main sources of livelihood in the valley, and their agreements with tenant farmers are often honored in the breach. Wages for rural labor are low. The large landlords (khans) are also likely to hold the concessions for the timber forests and the contracts to operate the gemstone mines that also employ the working class of Swat. “Paradise on earth” or not, the Swat valley has seen a large percentage of its able-bodied men out-migrate since the 1950s.

Until 1969, Swat was run as a princely state under an autocratic wali, in a continuation of the administrative structure set up under the British. Though he is remembered as benevolent and forward-looking in his social policies, the wali held a complete monopoly over taxation and the exploitation of natural and mineral resources. Revenue collection rights were given to elites and every household was taxed at a high rate to fill the state’s coffers. The princely state had its own laws and also the privilege of raising an army; indeed, the wali had a personal guard, a cavalry unit and heavy artillery. The Taliban’s desire for autonomy has a precedent.

When I met with Maulana Fazalullah in early 2008 he was considered a ‘dangerous’ man. While the army patrolled the highways and mountain tops attempting to control the so-called Taliban, I was able to walk in to Maulana Fazalullah’s compound at the Imam Dehri center and sit down with him for tea. We spent a couple of hours during which he insistently talked about the corruption and brutalization of the people of the valley of Swat. The men sitting around him echoed his stories with those of their own; the corruption and venality of the police, the exploitation of their forests and water ways, the destruction of their way of life and values at the hands of property speculators and hotel owners, the continued struggle to find a decent life under the boots of the feudasl who decided everything on a whim. Fazalullah never spoke about the Americans, Afghanistan, the ‘war against terror’ or such. He just spoke about Swat, about the areas near and around his village. As we sat there nearly 400 volunteers from villages all over the valley had come down to help construct his new madrassa. They had bought their own food and supplies and were working 24 hours a day to construct the center. And money as well. The army sat on the mountaintops and watched. I am sure they could see that dozens of armed men milling about the compound as well. But it was the highways that they wanted to patrol, the local people they wanted to harass, and the foreign photographers they wanted to take to their ‘posts’ and ‘command centers’.

It does not take a lot of intelligence to see that you are part of a game whose rules are being defined beyond the headlines and journalist pieces.

Ali Eteraz wrote a fascinating piece about the Islamization of Pakistan’s constitution under the direction of Zulfiwar Ali Bhutto. He describes in a piece called Pakistan Is Already An Islamic State, that foreign media’s penchant to see everything in Pakistan exclusively through the distorting prism of ‘the war against terror’:

…these views, rooted in the “war on terror” frame of thinking, diagnose Pakistan’s relationship with Islam incorrectly. The real issue in Pakistan is not that from time to time a group of militants, while demanding the implementation of sharia, begins attacking civilians. This, while deplorable and painful, is a consequence of Pakistan’s constitution. The essential problem in Pakistan is its flawed constitutional framework, which forces every citizen to refer to their idiosyncratic and personal views on life through the lens of “Islam.” Such a state of affairs has the effect of concealing every political, material and economic demand behind theological verbiage, and that situation ultimately favors religious hard-liners and militants who are willing to use violence.

Further pointing out that:

Most people in the world, including some Pakistanis, live under the illusion that the country is secular and just happens to have been overrun by extremists. This is false. Pakistan became an Islamic state in 1973 when the new constitution made Islam the state religion. Under the earlier 1956 constitution Islam had been merely the “official” religion. Nineteen-seventy-three, in other words, represents Pakistan’s “Iran moment“—when the government made itself beholden to religious law. Most western observers missed the radical change because the leader of Pakistan at the time was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a whiskey-drinking, pseudo-socialist from a Westernized family. Those that did notice the transformation ignored it because the country was reeling from a massive military defeat in 1971, which led to half the nation becoming Bangladesh.

And that this had devastating consequences for how the people of the country had to use Islamic idioms to demand even the most essential and basics of needs from a government now drowning under the Islamization programs of the self-styled prophet General Zia-Ul-Haq. Even Nawaz Sharif, now desperately attempting to pull on democratic underpants, once attempted to draw up legislation that would have him titled Amir-Ul-Momineen – The Great Leader Of The Believers. Pakistanis do have a wonderful penchant for shallow grandiosity and empty bombast!

And finally, Tariq Ali has recently written a Diary for London Review of Books piece that reminds us of the venality and corruption that is Asif Ali Zardari, and the pathetic state of a nation that is increasingly convinced that in fact it was he who simply murdered his wife, the highly popular, democratic myth known as Benazir Bhutto!

Of course these nuances, particularly those raised by Ali Eteraz and Asdar Ali are difficult to catch in our morning internet read. Pakistan does not really exist, other than as a pawn in a chess game being played in Washington D.C. The people dying on the frontiers of Afghanistan are not real people. President Obama was shedding tears for the killed Iranian activist Neda the same day that his drones slaughtered 60 people in the tribal areas. The cynical exploitation of ‘human concern’ in one instant, and the callous, calculated, inhuman, purely barbaric and cannibalistic indifference to the erasure of another speaks poorly of the popular belief that modernity and morality go hand in hand. The Pakistani government (it should be called the Pakistani Cabal), now in the hands of a rank criminal, is a pawn that can only move in two or three preordained directions. And our reporters arrive in it and report on it with those ‘rules of engagement’ subliminally and explicitly defined.

Let the wars begin!

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The Impossible Project: A Discussion – Amsterdam, Netherlands November 17 2015

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What happens when the issue, the situation or the circumstances do not permit or posses the obvious photograph? What does a photographer, who believes in the issue and is determined to bring it to light, do when s/he finds herself unable to find and/or take photographs? NOOR photographers Asim Rafiqui, Benedicte Curzen and Stanley Greene discuss a project each that confronted them with this challenge, and talk about how, determined to tell the story, they chose unconventional and unexpected approaches to it.

During the week of 16-20 November, Stanley, Bénédicte and Asim are teaching the NOOR-Nikon Amsterdam Masterclass with 15 young, aspiring photojournalists from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom at De Balie. As part of the week’s program the NOOR Foundation, with support from Nikon, has organized this evening – open to local industry professionals and the public at large.

The evening will be moderated by Nadia Moussaid.

The Courtier’s Obsession

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The Guardian reviewed Carlos Spottorno’s new work Wealth Management and claimed “…that there is enough mischief here to prove that Carlos Spottorno is one of the most serious political provocateurs currently operating in photography.” There is no doubt that Spottorno is a very smart photographer, but I disagree with the thought that this work is anything provocative. Unlike previous efforts, such as his project PIGS, this one falls within the same confines of the predictable and unimaginative.

The fact of the matter is that it has now become quite banal to document the profligate life-styles of the super-rich. In fact, Lauren Greenfield was an early pioneer of documenting the bizarre and deviant priorities and interests of the American elite society. However, since the 2008 crash, there have been a whole host of works that try to speak about global inequality and do so from the perspective of the hyper-wealthy. In fact, there are so many works that Time Magazine’s associate Photo Editor Myles Little could put together a massive global exhibition of works that bring together a visual potpourri of the lives of the super-rich.

In fact, so much so that Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes even went so far as to point out recently that:

More and more, I’m seeing wealth and power — in specific photo stories, and even more so, in the increasingly random presentation of news photos — as not just a recurrent theme, but as connective tissue….If hyper-capitalism is becoming the issue of our time, however, I’m tempted also say that more and more images…are presenting a moral counterweight. Details »

Minding The Perceptible Gap

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I did find this discomforting…its only the trailer, but the associations and presumptions are a offensive combination of Orientalism / Historical revisionism. Indeed, as someone pointed out, they are fantastic musicians, but this fact is entirely irrelevant to the issue at hand i.e the appropriation of Western symbols of liberation and freedom, juxtaposed against highly curtailed and crafted ideas of ‘religious’ fundamentalism and barbarism. We have seen this very often, and as well made as this film is, and as well crafted the narrative, it really doesn’t seem to want to get past this dichotomy, and to find a way to convince the international movie-going circuit that there is a longing to be more like them, and a desire to speak more like they do. And in that process, all sorts of liberties have been taken to construct the freedom vs. barbarism narrative.  Details »

Prisoners Caught In The Searchlight!

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There is a uncomfortable relationship between winning awards and doing journalism. Or photojournalism. Personally, I find it odd that reporters and photographers are so keen to ‘pick up’ awards, to walk down red-carpets, to accept trinkets that are apparently there to mark their ‘achievements’. It begs the question: what is the journalist’s or photojournalist’s achievement? How does one measure that in fact? Well, clearly in photojournalism, the achievement is always merely aesthetic. The works are never measured for their political, social, cultural or intellectual impact. Never. We are merely happy to pick up awards because the pictures were nice. Its all quite insular, self-congratulatory, and in complete contradiction of the public rhetoric of the craft, and the moral grandstanding that so many writers and photographers spew in social media and interviews. Details »

New World Order?

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The theatre of democracy keeps falling apart. What we are witnessing is the ideology of neoliberalism that is now so deeply entrenched in the EU member states that an entire political idea – people centred democracy – that Europe once claimed was ‘its heritage’ is being jettisoned. We saw how the voice of the people of Greece was never even a consideration in the way the Troika dealt with that crisis, we see it here the constitution is effectively discarded to protect the arrangements of the EU itself, and we will see it again elsewhere. This is however, not just about ideology. It is also about faith in a system called Ordoliberalism – a German concoction that emerged in the aftermath of WWII, where it is believed by its adherents that:

…like the Anglo-Saxon advocates of laissez-faire, believe the state should not distort the workings of the markets, but they also believe that free competition does not develop spontaneously. The state should establish a legal, technical, social, moral and cultural framework for the markets, and make sure everyone follows the rules….They argued that a strong state was needed to neutralise cartels and avoid the escalation of economic war. Eucken wrote: “The state has to consciously shape the structures, the institutional framework, the order, in which the economy functions … But it [should] not direct the economic process itself.

Details »

The Amsterdam NOOR / NIKON Masterclass

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I am in Pakistan now. But in a few weeks I will be in The Netherlands. And here is why.

We hear from self-proclaimed photojournalism futurists that the media world as we know it is dead. We are told repeatedly by major magazine editors that there are no budgets for serious, long-term photojournalism assignments. We argue every week with other editors for a even the most basic of day rates for the assignments we do get. We hear and read about all the new technical breakthroughs that are making sure magazine-spread, linearly laid out photo-essays, once the bread and butter of the craft, are no longer relevant, and that more sophisticated tools are promising us non-linear, complex, multi-layered means of story-telling.

And yet, there are few photography workshops that will actually discuss and incorporate these realities and help students figure out ways to navigate them. Even the most well known, resourced and taught photojournalism workshops continue to teach students based on a pedagogy that has little relevance in the world the students hope to make a name for themselves. We continue to see people standing around a light table carefully and with exaggerated precision, laying out photos in an A-to-B sequence, as if the magazine page was the principal and only possible publishing medium. We continue to hear teachers talking about ‘sense of place image’ or ‘an opener’ or a ‘closer’ and other such anachronistic ideas that frankly suggest that there  has been no digital transformation. Linearity, sequencing, start-here-then-go-there approach remain the principle method in workshops, photo festivals, gallery exhibits and even online portfolio presentations. This despite the fact that more likely than not, a new photographers work will end up on a digital platform far before it ever ends up in a printed one.

Details »

War As A Product

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Militarism was thus being perpetuated at precisely the moment that it had become marginalised as a political program…[This was possible because of the]…spatial packaging of the underside of British modernity, in which Arabia figured as the last bastion of the world free from bourgeois convention, a place of honour and bravery (however mindless), of manly sportsmanship and perennial conflict…As Glubb put it, “Life in the desert is continuous guerrilla warfare,” and this meant striking hard and fast because that was the way of “Bedouin war.” “Not a moderate, but a maximum weight of bombs must be dropped” to maintain the native’s respect for airpower, insistend Flight Lieutenant Mackay. On his return home, General Haldane corroborated this truism about Arabs’ masochistic respect for “force, and force alone,” assuring audiences at the United Services Institute that though he had been “obliged t0 inflict a very severe lesson on the recalcitrant tribes, they bore me no resentment.” To them, Glubb elaborated, war was a ‘romantic excitement” whose production of “tragedies, bereavements, widows and orphans” was a “normal way of life,” “natural and inevitable.” Their taste for war was the source of their belief that they were “elites of the human race.” It would be a cultural offence not to bombard them with all the might of the empire (not least out of respect for the frequently invoked tribal principle of communal responsibility). Arnold Wilson confirmed for the Air Ministry that the problem was one of public perception, that Iraqis were used to a state of constant warfare, expected justice without kids gloves, had no patience with sentimental distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, and viewed air action as entirely “legitimate and proper.” “The natives of a lot of these tries love fighting for fighting’s sake,” Trenchard assured Parliament. “They have no objection to being killed.”  (Page 250)

Priya Satia Spies In Arabia: The Great War And The Cultural Foundations of Britian’s Covert Empire In The M.E. 

They are two individuals embedded deep inside America’s war machine. Ostensibly and formally introduced as ‘reporters’ for The New York Times, Helene Cooper and Adam Ferguson, we are told are “…aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt in the Persian Gulf.” And they are supposed to be conducting journalism. The fact that instead they are producing propaganda pieces for the US military is rather difficult to avoid stating. I suppose in such a situation, where access to a major battle fleet has been arranged from negotiations between the highest levels of military command, and the highest levels of The New York Time’s corporate command, I can’t see either one being able to produce anything else. Details »

On Indexing, Categorising And As A Result, Erasing

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I would like Arab women to stop trying to represent ‘Arab’ women.

This is an insidious trap that steals from them the width and breath of life and imagination. We have so much to document, so much to speak about, beyond the constant rehashing of issues of ‘hijabs’ and ‘harems’ and ‘self-identify’. The Western curatorial tradition – ideological, and blind to its affiliations to power and politics, wants the brown wo/man to only always be explaining and representing themselves. It’s as if we are alien beings under constant interrogation and curious observation. Previously they forced it from us, now they try to get us to do it voluntarily by offering us a ‘space’ in their beautiful galleries and magazine spreads. No Western photographer or curator would ever put together an exhibition like this about White /European women. The subject would not even occur to them, and in fact, it would be considered seriously bizarre. The European needs no representation. The ‘other’s’ women – inexplicable, opaque, deviant, incomprehensible, are constantly placed under a gaze – curatorial, documentary, journalistic and what not. Or being bought together to justify their ‘humanity’ by showing possibly that they are as much human as we are. I don’t even quite understand the need to have such ethnically and geographically segmented works, but clearly there is a huge market for it in the imperial nations. The French are great purveyors of such anachronistic Orientalism, constantly categorising and indexing the world into its neat little ‘packets’.  Details »

Dream Palaces / Tensin Tsundue – IV

My father died
defending our home,
our village, our country.
I too wanted to fight.
But we are Buddhist.
People say we should be
Peaceful and Non-Violent.
So I forgive our enemy.
But sometimes I feel
I betrayed my father.


Betrayal by Tensin Tsundue

Details »

Dream Palaces / Tensin Tsundue – III

When it rains in Dharamsala
raindrops wear boxing gloves,
thousands of them
come crashing down
and beat my room.
Under its tin roof
my room cries from inside
and wets my bed, my papers.

Sometimes the clever rain comes
from behind my room,
the treacherous walls lift
their heels and allow
a small flood into my room.

I sit on my island-nation bed
and watch my country in flood,
notes on freedom,
memoirs of my prison days,
letters from college friends,
crumbs of bread
and Maggi noodles
rise sprightly to the surface
like a sudden recovery
of a forgotten memory.

Three months of torture,
monsoon in the needle-leafed pines
Himalaya rinsed clean
glistens in the evening sun.
Until the rain calms down
and stops beating my room
I need to console my tin roof
who has been on duty
from the British Raj.
This room has sheltered
many homeless people.

Now captured by mongooses
and mice, lizards and spiders,
and partly rented by me.
A rented room for home
is a humbling existence.
My Kashmiri landlady
at eighty cannot return home.
We often compete for beauty
Kashmir or Tibet.

Every evening,
I return to my rented room;
but I am not going to die this way.
There has got to be
some way out of here.
I cannot cry like my room
I have cried enough
in prisons and
in small moments of despair.

There has got to be
some way out of here.
I cannot cry,
my room is wet enough.

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