05
Jun
09

No more camels: Egypt officials hope to make pyramids accessible only by bus

By Nick Mendez and Emily Williams

Giza, EGYPT – Sed Ali, 33, digs his heels into the hindquarters of a small, gray, Arabian-style horse, trotting across the sand and weaving through a pack of worn-down camels. Today, Ali is providing a group of Northeastern University students with a guided tour of the great pyramids in Giza, a family business he’s been a part of since he was 6 years old. But before he sets out, he makes a request.

Families who for generations have taken visitors to the pyramids on camel back might face a shut-down of their business. (Photo by Nick Mendez)

Families who for generations have taken visitors to the pyramids on camel back might face a shut-down of their business. (Photo by Nick Mendez)

He asks that clients send the Egyptian government letters praising his business and urging officials to continue allowing him to bring tourists through the sandy desert to the pyramids. Ali does so, he says, due to the government’s threatened closure of the independent camel operators in favor of modernizing the historic site.

“Without the camels, the place it will die,” said Ali, whose family has done this work for three generations.

Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, which oversees Giza and other historic sites, is looking to protect the Giza pyramids by transforming the area’s largely unregulated industry of camel drivers, docents and peddlers into a carefully controlled tourism complex by October 2009, according to officials.

Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and chief architect of the plateau modernization effort, said he’s merely trying to protect one of the country’s treasures. In a recent interview in his Cairo office, Hawass acknowledged that the camel and horse operators “hate” him. But he said that for too long, they’ve been allowed unfettered access to the historic site. That has led to damage and an atmosphere driven by the calls and approaches of aggressive souvenir sellers.

“To the people with camels and horses, the plateau is like a plate with gold,” Hawass said. “I want to polish it but they just sh-t on it.”

In his office, Hawass picked up a pen and paper to sketch his vision, a $35 million complex in which visitors – in buses, cars, camels and horses – are expected to arrive at a visitor’s center. From there, they would buy a ticket and take an electric tram to the pyramid and the adjoining Great Sphinx. Ali and other area merchants would be required to pay license and rental fees, vying for space on limited plots allotted for stables and shops.

That’s a far different Giza than the one that Ali fondly remembers as a picnicking spot. A containment wall now blocks his family from doing that anymore.

Sed Ali begs visitors to his stables to write letters to the Egyptian government, protesting the decision to make the pyramids accessible only by buses.

Sed Ali begs visitors to his stables to write letters to the Egyptian government, protesting the decision to make the pyramids accessible only by buses.

And for the time being, businesses such as Ali’s are forced to compete with government-sanctioned tour buses, which climb the plateau along a new road from the north. The road is just the latest in several years of government efforts to direct tourism through its more regulated, and therefore more profitable, conduits. The wall already runs along the east side of the plateau, but, on a recent afternoon, the guards allowed a group to pass through for just 100 pounds, less than $20.           

After the modernization is complete, this gated entrance will only be used for VIPs and tourists wishing to travel on foot.  

“I did not like the wall,” Hawass said, “but sometimes if you are dying and they want to cut off your leg, you’ll agree.”

The wall is also intended to prevent Gizans from building houses any closer to the pyramids. Along with homes belonging to locals, which Hawass felt are ugly and obtrusive, westerners coveting the view of a lifetime have encroached on the site with the construction of lavish manors.  

“I want people to feel the magic of the pyramids,” said Hawass, who emphasized the potential for physical damage if the plateau is not more closely controlled. “The pyramids were made for history.”

Similar projects have already been completed in Luxor at the Karnak and Hatshepsut temples, the latter receiving significant additions due to security concerns after Islamic militants killed 60 tourists there in November 1997.

Concerns over further damage to antiquities have even inspired Hawass to consider building a replica of King Tut’s tomb (known as KV62) and close the original, currently one of Egypt’s most popular tourist spots. In December 2007 he capped the number of visitors at 400 per day to protect the Valley of the King’s most popular attraction.

“I am the only one in Egypt who does not want more tourists,” Hawass said with a chuckle.

Ali said he loves his job however, and isn’t ready for the decades-old family enterprise to come to an end. When asked, he credits even his learning English to his work on the plateau.

“Mostly from here,” he said shouting, steering his horse into the crowd. “This is the school of life.”

04
Jun
09

Photo Essay: A rare look at the decimated buildings inside Golan Heights

Text by Caitlin Coyle and Kristina Sorge // Photos by Caitlin Coyle

Golan Heights, SYRIA – Israel invaded the Syrian province of Golan Heights in June of 1967 in a six-day war and seized a portion of land that included rich soil, and an important water source.  The occupation included Al-Qunaytirah, a town that was once a regional hub for Syria. Israeli military forces remained there until 1974, when a United Nations’ disengagement agreement called for their withdrawal.

Before returning the land, Israeli forces demolished and defaced the lush, agricultural village of Al-Qunaytirah. The Syrians didn’t repopulate the territory, choosing instead to leave it as a reminder of the occupation. It sits officially inside a UN-monitored demilitarized zone between the enemy countries, and is guarded by trucks printed with the letters UNDOF, or United National Disengagement Observer Force.

Today, all that is left of Golan are the remains of decimated buildings, canvassed with bullet holes and graffiti.

“This governorate has been suffering a lot because of Israeli aggression,” said Rihad Hejab, mayor of the province. There are still 30,000 Syrians who live in the broader occupied territory.

A hallway that was once walked by doctors and nurses is left shattered by the weapons of the Israeli military. The hospital in Quneitra demonstrates the aggression employed by the Israeli forces before returning control of the vicinity. Twisted, rusted pipes are strewn throughout the massive piles of rubble. From the outside the building looks torn, but the real destruction emanates from within the bullet-ridden rooms and deteriorating walls.

A hallway that was once walked by doctors and nurses is left shattered by the weapons of the Israeli military. The hospital in Al-Qunaytirah demonstrates the aggression employed by the Israeli forces before returning control of the vicinity. Twisted, rusted pipes are strewn throughout the massive piles of rubble.

A Syrian structure, built to keep watch over the surrounding areas. Though the aggression has long passed, people in the province are still affected by the Israeli occupation. In a recent press conference Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal explained the political and humanitarian impact of the Israeli presence in Golan Heights. “The occupation is the mother of all problems in this area,” he said.

A Syrian structure, built to keep watch over the surrounding areas. Though the aggression has long passed, people in the province are still affected by the Israeli occupation. In a recent press conference, Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal explained the political and humanitarian impact of the Israeli presence in Golan Heights. “The occupation is the mother of all problems in this area,” he said.

Tall barbed wire and land mines surround the grassy knoll that divides the two neighboring countries. They symbolize the deep-rooted conflict that lies painfully between the Syrians and Israelis. The wire stretches far across the Golan, evident not only inside the Quneitra hospital but along the border with Israel. Though Syria and Israel have ceased fighting, the landmines continue killing innocent civilians.

Tall barbed wire and land mines surround the grassy knoll that divides the two neighboring countries. They symbolize the deep-rooted conflict that exists between the Syrians and Israelis. The wire stretches far across the Golan, evident not only inside the hospital but along the border with Israel. Though Syria and Israel have ceased fighting, the landmines continue killing innocent civilians.

The United Nation’s Disengagement Force has been placed on the ceasefire line in order to avoid any future aggression from either party.

The United Nation patrols the ceasefire line in order to inhibit future aggression from either country.

03
Jun
09

Syrian officials block most social networking sites online, but youth know how to get around it

By Lisa Newman

Damascus, SYRIA – Since its creation in 2004, Facebook has evolved into a popular and effective means of social networking, political campaigning, and collective organizing around the world. But in Syria, it is seen as a weapon.

Along with other social networking sites such as MySpace and Blogspot, the Syrian government has blocked Facebook since November 2007. Mohsen Bilal, Syria’s minister of information, said the threat of Israeli communication is the reason behind the block. He oversees all media coming in and out of Syria, including the Internet.

“Our greatest problem is the occupation,” Bilal said. “The conflict with Israel is not limited to fighting on the ground. Israel is using all sorts of networking to fight.”

The minister added that Lebanon has already found Israeli spies trying to gain footing by using Facebook. He said that he believes Israel has engineered opposition networks through certain sites that his nation’s youth should not have access to.

“We do not live in security. Israel is not limited to the occupation. They are waging wars using spy networks,” Bilal said. Israel and Syria were engaged in indirect peace talks up until Israel invaded the Gaza Strip in December of last year. The two countries have been warring since Israel occupied The Golan Heights, fertile land along Syria’s southwestern border, in 1967.

Although Syria’s government suggests it is most concerned with enemy spy networks, media scholars elsewhere speculate that there are other motivations.

“The Israeli spy network claim doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t think the Mossad needs Facebook,” said Laurel Leff, professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on free speech in the United States. The Mossad is Israel’s national intelligence agency. 

Rather, she and other experts say that the threat with these sites is in their capacity to unite people behind a cause – perhaps an opposition cause. In Syria, that would be seen as dangerous to the state.

For example, after Barack Obama successfully used Facebook to campaign for his presidency, the world community recognized the various potentials of the social networking site.

“The Internet in general represents a huge threat to the world, which is why countries such as China and Myanmar put so much effort into censoring it,” Dan Kennedy, professor of journalism at Northeastern University, said in an e-mail. “Social media connects like-minded people in ways that unpopular governments attempting to hold on to power would find especially threatening.”

Another example can be seen in Iran, which recently lifted a three-day Facebook block. The motivation behind the shut-down, some believe, was an attempt by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to slow opposition support in advance for the upcoming June 12 elections.

Students from Damascus University expressed their thoughts on the block in their country and explained, during a meeting with Northeastern University students last week, what they believe is behind it.

“I saw a group on Facebook that was against the Syrian government and I think that’s the main reason why Facebook is blocked,” Yeman Shattar said.

Almost all students admitted to using a proxy site such as hotzoneshield.com that essentially employs a small, easily downloadable program to navigate around the block and allow access to any sites.

But even with the proxy program, Internet connections are often slow in Syria, meaning pictures and video are difficult to upload. Many students said they feel this defeats the purpose of Facebook, which emphasizes posting photos, and so aren’t bothered that they can’t access it.

Rula Karahamad, a student at Damascus University, had a Facebook account before the block went into place and said she felt cut off from the rest of the world when access was denied. It is her main source of communication with friends in Dubai, and in other cities.

Karahamad said she sees the block as a fearful reaction to the idea of freedom of expression.

“Facebook is something you can use without limitations,” Karahamad said. “That’s scary for our society at this point.”

03
Jun
09

High-level Syrian officials say Obama’s renewal of accountability act a violation of human rights

By Andrea Campbell and Emily Williams

Damascus, SYRIA – Last week, President Barack Obama renewed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, or SAA, imposing another year worth of sanctions on the Syrian government.

Officials here are railing against the decision, saying the act is a violation of  their people’s human rights.

“[The act] leaves impact on every citizen in Syria. And in addition to the financial impact, could include medical, industrial. This has a 10,000- [Syrian] pound impact on every Syrian,” said Rihad Hejab, the mayor of Al-Qunaytirah, a region in western Syria encompassing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The SAA was originally signed into law in December 2003 by former President George W. Bush in an effort to “halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, and stop its development of weapons of mass destruction.”

The act’s sanctions include a ban of U.S.-Syrian imports or exports on the United States Munitions List or the Commerce Control List, with the exception of food and medicine.

The SAA also requires the president to select additional sanctions defined in the act, such as prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria, and limiting diplomatic contact with the country.

These sanctions have had a number of additional consequences on Syrian civilians, the county’s officials insist.

For example, as a result of the SAA, civilian airlines in Syria are unable to import parts necessary to repair their aircraft. Not only has this hurt Syria economically, explained Ghiath Barakat, Syrian minister of higher education, but also, as aircraft go without maintenance, it could pose a risk to passenger safety, he said.

“What would be the result? We would be endangering our citizens. This would be a violation of human rights,” said Barakat.

Import of medical technologies has also been affected by the SAA. The minister gave the example of a linear accelerator, used in radiation technologies, manufactured in the U.S. and therefore unattainable by Syria.

“After we signed with the contractor, the administration did not give their approval,” said Barakat. “We’re going to use it for people; it is their right, for medical reasons, not for military reasons.”

These consequences have not gone unnoticed by the U.S. government, said Kimberly Jones, associate director of international affairs at Northeastern University.

“Although it might not have all the details, the United States government understands the overall impact of sanctions. … For obvious reasons, the U.S. de-emphasizes sanctions’ impact while Syria spotlights it,” said Jones in an email interview.

Jones explained that while President Obama’s decision to renew the act stemmed from concerns for U.S. interest in the area, it was also likely motivated by politics, both domestic and international.

Among Obama’s reasons for renewing the SAA is Syria’s alleged support of terrorism through groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. While Syria has politically supported Hamas, it has never contributed financially, said Muhsin Bilal, Syrian minister of information.

Another condition of the act is that Syria better control its border with Iraq. Syrian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdul Fattah Ammoarah explained that Syria simply does not have the resources to secure the entire border.

“If you cannot control your border with Mexico, how can we control our border with Iraq?” said Ammoarah.

“Some of Syria’s relationships of concern actually place it in a unique position, where it has the potential to bridge some diplomatic chasms the United States finds difficult to cross,” said Jones.

The SAA sanctions will remain until May 2010, when President Obama will once again have the decision to renew. Obama didn’t say specifically the reasons he renewed the act this time, but the press release issued by the State Department said that Syria remains a “unique and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security.

The U.S.-Syrian relationship is an important one, said Jones, but Syria has a number of steps it must take before the SAA is repealed.

“Moreover, the U.S. placed enough bad deeds on the Syrian to-do list that if the political timing is not opportune, sanctions may remain. So Syria could theoretically remedy A and B, but the U.S. could say, “Fine, but what about C and D?” said Jones.

03
Jun
09

Photo essay: The many faces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

Text by Dani Capalbo // Photos by Nick Mendez

From ancient houses of worship to Saladin’s shrine, three labyrinthine khans, and a 13th century library, Damascus suffers no shortage of authentic attractions. But you’ll see nothing more frequently than a panoptic trilogy of faces: President Bashar al-Assad, his late brother Basil al-Assad, and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years.

Photographs of the family – particularly the president – grace shop windows, countless billboards, decals on passing cars, watch faces and the walls of university libraries.

Across the Arab world, Muslim and secular leaders use the image of the great leader as a way to encourage loyalty. But it’s also a way to remind citizens that they’re under watch. It’s a practice popular since the 1950s, when former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser pioneered an anti-colonialist, pan-Arab movement that won him unconditional favor across the region. His face loomed in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. 

Since then, images of other prominent leaders, such as Hezbollah President Hassan Nasrallah, have canvassed the Middle East. Though President Bashar doesn’t enjoy the same multinational treatment, his face takes center stage in Syria. Whether he is portrayed in business suits or military fatigues, casual dress with his wife and family, or with aviator sunglasses and a finger wagging, the goal is to reach disparate socio-economic groups within the country. Because here, image is everything.

Billboards of President Assad, who seized the mantle of power after his father’s death in 2000, appear on almost every street in Damascus.

Billboards of President Assad, who seized the mantle of power after his father’s death in 2000, appear on almost every street in Damascus.

Rear window decals are another common venue for Syrian patriotism. Stickers range from small white Assad silhouettes to this larger pairing with the national flag.

Rear window decals are another common venue for Syrian patriotism. Stickers range from small white Assad silhouettes to this larger pairing with the national flag.

: Not even the filling of ice-cream cones continues without al-Assad’s proxy supervision. This ice cream shop in Damascus’ oldest souq [market] also hung a different portrait above the eating area.

Most buildings and shops display a photo or painting of Syria's president. Not even the filling of ice cream cones continues without Assad’s proxy supervision.

The aroma of coriander and cinnamon thick in the air, the details of Assad’s mustached mug lit by a hanging lightbulb outside a spice shop.

With the aroma of coriander and cinnamon thick in the air, Assad's image is lit by a hanging lightbulb outside a spice shop.

In a meeting room meters away from the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights, hangs an ornate, back-lit portrait.

In a meeting room meters away from the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan Heights hangs an ornate, back-lit portrait.

02
Jun
09

the Qur’an asks followers to guard over all of God’s creatures, including animals

By Clarice Connors

Damascus, SYRIA – In the middle of a cobblestone courtyard, a tanned man in a khaki vest and rolled-up green pants tilts his head to the sky and shouts “Ai! Ai! Ai!”

A man periodically feeds a flock of pigeons outside the XXX mosque in Damascus. People here believe it is their duty to take care of all creatures. (Photo by Clarice Connors)

A man periodically feeds a flock of pigeons outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. People here believe it is their duty to take care of all creatures. (Photo by Clarice Connors)

He is shuffling around a roped-off section in front of the Umayyad Mosque. The yellow tape forms a hexagon-shaped area and a cluster of people gather around its edges. He is shouting in the direction of the the great stone wall entrance – which is a resting place for thousands of pigeons.

The man grabs a bag of seed from a pile that is balancing on top of a plastic red crate and scatters it. The huge mass of cooing birds takes flight. Gray, speckled, and white-splotched pigeons swoop down over the crowd, some making crash landings or circling amid the air traffic. They all squeeze themselves into the small area and peck furiously at the seed.

According to Reymond Piter, 34, the owner of Surya, a hand-crafted scarf and bag shop located just down a pathway from the courtyard, the bird feeding practice has been going on for about seven years at the gateway to the hectic and massive market in downtown Damascus.

“Some people feed the birds, and tourists do too,” Piter said of the small fee a tourist can pay to dump seed on the cobblestone area. He takes a moment to think and sips his yellow tea. “It’s because we care, because we love natural life and it is all around us.”

Piter is referring to the general care for animals that is obvious within Syrian culture. A turn down any street or alley reveals small bowls of water or morsels of food left out for stray cats, which number in the thousands in this country. And, as a result, the cats look healthy and scamper around, keeping to themselves instead of scrounging around doorsteps and garbage cans.

Many Muslims reference the Qur’an as providing some guidelines regarding treatment of animals. People are encouraged to serve as guardians for God’s creatures while on Earth. The Prophet Muhammad gives many examples of proper and improper treatment of animals. He said that a man who treats his horse well will be protected from poverty. Another example says that God views it as an act of charity when a Muslim plants seed and an animal or bird eats from what it yields.

At the other end of the spectrum, a Muslim is not to abuse an animal or tie it up and neglect it.

“It is for Allah,” said Dikran Yalkzian, 50, an antique silver merchant in the Damascus market. “It is a good deed, and it is public for people to see.”

Yalkzian points a ringed finger to the streaked window of his tiny shop. “See, it is right in the courtyard in front of the mosque.” Yalkzian is referencing the bird feeding which occurs many times throughout each day. He can hear the man outside, calling to the flock.

“Putting food out for cats is not so public. It is a nice thing to do,” Yalkzian said. “We take care of our animals. They are God’s creatures and maybe they cannot help themselves.”

The same sentiment is shared outside of the marketplace, in office buildings. Rula Karahamd, 24, a public relations specialist working at the Syrian Arab Association for SOS Children’s Villages, sees her peers making an effort every day to care for homeless animals.

“In my office, there is always some guy taking care of the stray animals,” she said. “He puts out milk and always feeds them. They [cats] come to the door and we take pity on them.”

Karahamd indicates that though many of these caring actions are done out of kindness, largely they are done because the Prophet Muhammad instructed it.

“There is a Prophet saying that there was a man who once kicked a cat and he went to hell,” Karahamd said. Despite the consequences of such an action, she makes it clear that caring for animals is not a particular duty for which one feels obligated. It is the idea of pity – pity for a creature that does not have the abilities that humans do to care for themselves.

Piter describes it as a kind of gracious exchange.

“It is like if a man’s son is good or he is successful,” he said. “He might bring his son to church and give the church money. Some people feed the animals instead. If we see a small cat in the way [on the street] we can put it on the corner. It is all we can do to keep it safe, something small.”

02
Jun
09

Information minister says Syrians do not “hate” Americans, but asks why Americans hate Syrians

By Kate Augusto and Dani Capalbo

Damascus, SYRIA – Syria will not make any overtures of peace toward Israel until the country returns its portion of the Golan Heights, said Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal to a crowd of 55 journalists and students last Thursday.

Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal spoke to a group of American students, and members of his own state-controlled media, in a press conference held last week in Damascus, Syria. (Photo by Dani Capalbo)

Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal spoke to a group of American students, and members of his own state-controlled media, in a press conference held last week in Damascus, Syria. (Photo by Dani Capalbo)

“Occupation is the mother of all problems,” Bilal said, blaming the conflict for every issue raised during a press conference at his ministry. Northeastern University political science professor Denis Sullivan also unexpectedly fielded questions from the audience as an incidental spokesman for the United States.

“We come here as – not reluctant ambassadors – but surprised to be ambassadors of the United States,” Sullivan said in his impromptu opening statements. “But we can take that role. I will accept that mantle on behalf of my students while they maintain their independent-minded journalistic digging and questioning and wondering and appreciating, which we’ve been doing since we started in Egypt.”

Since May 3, Sullivan has been leading a group of 26 Northeastern University students from their campus in Boston, Mass., through the Middle East. Their program included stops in Cairo, Egypt, Damascus, and Doha, Qatar.

Before opening the floor to questions, Bilal lectured the students on Syria’s contentious diplomatic relations with America under the George W. Bush administration. He also expressed hope for a reconciliation in light of President Barack Obama’s election and upcoming trip to the Middle East. The president is slated to address the Arab world from Egypt on June 4.

“Why America hates us?” Bilal asked. “We do not hate you and we hope you do not hate us … We are ready to make with you a full friendship. A full brotherhood.”

In 2003, the Bush administration launched the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, known as the SAA, which prevents any imports to Syria comprised of more than 10 percent American parts, Bilal said. This has caused resentment from the Syrians toward the American government, and has deteriorated relations between the countries. Obama renewed the act last week.

Bilal and Sullivan took turns answering questions from the crowd, alternating between the students and professional Syrian journalists from the public and private spheres.

When asked about Syria’s history of nationwide bans on websites such as Blogger and Facebook, Bilal said through a translator: “No. 1, the network is not really perfect … No. 2, some websites are controlled and engineered by Israel. It’s not really good for our youth to have access to that.”

This was the only question Bilal answered in Arabic.

Bilal also used this opportunity to further address the Arab-Israeli conflict and the SAA, blaming the embargo for Syria’s inability to completely upgrade its fleet of civilian jets.

“Syria is still suffering from that embargo, as you know, and the United States itself has voted for the sanctions against us,” Bilal said. “And now we have fewer planes – I’m talking about civilian planes – because of the embargo and the American sanctions against us.”

He answered two more questions about the conflict, including an inquiry into Syria’s domestic priorities.

When asked about private media, Bilal deferred to professional journalists in the audience.

“Since we started operating five years ago, we’ve been covering everything – just everything – in Syria:  political, economic, social,” said Dalia Haidar, a reporter for the privately owned monthly magazine Syria Today. “Our issues [cover] everything. And I can also say that we’ve been providing balanced articles about all issues and all controversial issues. Even … what we call in Syria taboos – we be talking about them.”

Despite some departures from the topic, Bilal made the Arab-Israeli conflict the centerpiece of the hour-long conversation. Syrian journalists also had the chance to question Sullivan. Those dealt almost exclusively with the conflict, as well.

“How do you see the right of resistance for those people who suffer from Israeli crimes against the families and children, especially when there is no hope of peaceful solution in our area?” one Syrian reporter asked.

Sullivan responded:  “Could you ask me a direct question … because it seems like you have the answer in your question.” He then went on to address his definition of what a terrorist is vs. a member of a resistance movement.

To summarize, Bilal offered to continue talking with groups from Northeastern University, and said he hopes these sorts of conversations can begin to bridge the gulf between the two countries. “We are pro a new climate of friendship,” he said.




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