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Q & A with the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Published on the website of the Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies on February 5, 2016

Khaled Fahmy is the 2015–2016 Shawwaf Visiting Professor in Modern Middle Eastern History at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. His research interests lie in the social and cultural history of modern Egypt. He has been conducting research in the Egyptian National Archives for the past twenty years on such diverse topics as the history of law, medicine, and public hygiene. Since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution, he also has been a regular contributor to Egyptian and international media.

What courses did you teach this fall?

I taught two classes, one an undergraduate survey class and one a graduate class, and I have to say I enjoyed teaching them very much. I hadn’t been teaching for some time because I had been on sabbatical, and I had a fellowship at Columbia last year that also entailed very little teaching, so it was my first time to stand in front of a class in three years. It reminded me of how much I do enjoy teaching, but the students made it a particularly enjoyable experience because they are just on top of things, they are alert, and fresh, and excited, and very hardworking. The undergraduate class is a survey of modern Middle Eastern history, which I have been teaching for many years. I started teaching it at Princeton, then NYU, then the American University in Cairo, but usually I teach the class, which is a survey from the late eighteenth century to the present, in one semester. Here, the history department told me that they would like this span to be divided into two courses, which meant this last semester I taught a class that covers the history of the Middle East from 1750 to the First World War. So most of it obviously was on the nineteenth century, which for me was very enjoyable, because that’s my area of specialty. I work on nineteenth-century Egyptian social and cultural history, I know this period well, and it was very enjoyable to be able to spend so much time on the nineteenth century. Also, I had an amazing TA, Kathryn Schwartz, who was really an amazing resource in helping me to figure out all the idiosyncratic systems of Harvard.

The graduate class I taught here for the first time. This was a class in Arabic, so it was listed not as a history class but as an Arabic class, and it was reading original texts in something called hisba, which, simply put, is a system of market regulation and moral policing, both at once. It’s a new area of research for me that I’ve been working on now for two years, and last year I taught a seminar on it at Columbia. This time, it was a seminar not in substance, but in the sources, in the texts, which ranged in complexity and difficulty from very modern, contemporary texts written in the twentieth century to texts of jurisprudence written by jurists from the eleventh century onwards. I had only four students, whose Arabic was really amazing, who dug their teeth into these texts. They of course have experience, and three of them work with Malika Zeghal, so they have solid background in Islamic law, and Arabic, and of course Middle Eastern history. But what I sensed from them, and what they kept on saying, was that this was the first time they really had a class in which they read this kind of texts so closely or had this kind of experience. Usually they do it on their own, or one-to-one with their advisers, but not in a structured class with discussions and close reading of these texts. I’m not a language instructor—that’s a specific skill—but I know Arabic, I know Arabic grammar rather well, so I could answer questions or ask questions about this. But we also covered the actual content, the actual substance of the texts—we didn’t only spend time just getting through the language. These are texts I became familiar with over the past year and a half—I work with them, I study them closely, I use them in my forthcoming book—and I think the combination of language skills but also knowledge of the topic itself and of Islamic law, made it, at least for me, a very satisfying class.

What is the forthcoming book that you’re working on?

It’s a project that I have been working on for many years—too many years, probably—but it’s a big project, a project that started in my experience in the archives. It’s a book that deals with nineteenth-century Egyptian cultural and social history, using medicine and law together—these are my two main tropes—and it uses more specifically the areas in which these two disciplines intersect, which means that a big portion of the book deals with the very unsavory topics of torture—legal torture—and forensic medicine. The project started with my discovery in the Egyptian archives of reports by forensic doctors that were very technical and specific and detailed about violent crime from the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s—this is more or less my period. And I got fascinated by these reports—and it’s not one or two, we’re talking about hundreds of reports—and I got initially interested in them to see how average Egyptians, or even very poor Egyptians in the countryside in particular, understood modern medicine. For example, a mother finds her son dying, a poor, illiterate peasant woman, and she proceeds to bury him, and then the thing that we now call the state comes in and says, no, no, no, we have a say, we have not issued a death certificate, we have to ascertain a cause of death. And occasionally, when there are suspicious cases, this investigation evolves into a postmortem examination, and if that is not conclusive then an actual autopsy. What I discovered, and this was really the most interesting finding, is that sometimes it is the relatives of the deceased themselves who would ask for a dissection, which is of course a very difficult decision for them. But when they suspected foul play, even though they are illiterate and supposedly ignorant and so on, and even though this is a new practice, not more than ten years old in Egypt at that time, they understood what modern medicine, what forensic medicine can do for their quest for justice. I had these very fascinating cases that could make the most interesting movie, in which the relatives of the deceased are the ones who ask for dissection.

And then I started saying, well, that’s the social history, the cultural history side of things—what about the medical history? How were these doctors trained? Where were they trained? Who were they? How did they go about doing their business, and what else did they do, where else were they stationed, and what are the institutions that trained them, that employed them, and so on. And that took many, many years of research.

And then there was the legal side of it, which is what kind of courts accepted these kinds of investigations, because these are not the old familiar shari’a courts that we as historians of this part of the world have been working with for the past thirty, forty years, the famous shari’a court records. These are court records, but not shari’a. So, the question is, what is this legal system, what is this medical system, how did people understand the interaction between these two systems, and that basically is what the book is about.

In the spring you’ll teach two more classes including the seminar “Law, Medicine, and Justice in Modern Egypt.” Quoting from the course description, the seminar “offers an introduction to the history of modern Egypt through the study of forensic medicine.” Will this course offer students a preview of the new book?

The class is very much based of course on the research I have been doing for my book, and I want to see how I can share this with the students—the findings, but also the sources, and the questions, and the literature that I have been reading. But what I want to basically offer them is a new way to understand the history of modernity in the Middle East—in this case, in Egypt, but any country can work. Typically, we understand the history of the modern Middle East via some famous paradigms. The impact of the West is of course a famous paradigm. The incorporation into the world economy and the rise of capitalism is another paradigm. The so-called nahda, which is the Arab renaissance of the nineteenth century in literature and in art, is another paradigm. The formation of the modern state. These are familiar paradigms, familiar tropes with which we study the history of the modern Middle East, and of course they help, and they deliver. What I want to propose is to take, not political history, and not economic history, as the main tool, not intellectual history, but social history or cultural history, and to take the human body as the unit of analysis. How can we view these different paradigms if we start from the human body? Not class, for example, not the state, not colonialism, not the West, not orientalism, but that thing that we assume we understand, that we take for granted, which is the human body. So, I thought about the human body, about the things that I study, and I trace, and the weeks in the course are divided in this way. So we have a week on censuses. How do states conduct censuses, how do states count, why do states count, and what is the impact of this? There’s an enormous amount of literature on this, not necessarily on the Middle East, but on other parts of the world. Vaccination against smallpox, again, connected to census. To be able to identify where the kids are, to have this database updated with additions and deletions, births and deaths—this is a very complicated, complex machinery, which we now know as the modern state. So vaccination is an important thing, and of course it is connected with medicine, with science, and discoveries, and laboratories, and midwives, and barber surgeons—because it’s the barber surgeons who actually did the vaccinations, and they were paid the equivalent of one cent each per successful vaccination—so this is a complicated machinery. Conscription, which was my first, earlier research project. What happens in death, for example, who is authorized to actually identify the moment of death? This again is a very familiar question in European history, when doctors took this right from men of religion. So the same thing happened in the nineteenth century in Egypt, and this is, for me, a more interesting way of understanding this whole debate about science and religion than the typical way with which we in Middle Eastern studies approach this question. So rather than, ask, how did Islam cope with modernity, how did Muslims understand such terms as equality, or feminism, or modern science, I actually study a particular practice. Again, it’s not intellectual history, it is cultural, social history that is very embedded in daily life, and the good thing is that my sources allow me to answer these questions, because they talk about this. These are police records, these are medical records, and legal records, that talk about the body. Then there are the many, many examples of small death certificates that I have found in the archives. There are individual burial certificates for individual people, but also group certificates in the sense that the public health doctor of a particular district would issue a daily report about how many people died in his district, and he would identify their names, ages, cause of death, and residence. So that’s a fascinating source and it can tell me many interesting things. But again the main unit of analysis for me is the human body, and I want to see if the students can find this useful, if they can shift a bit the way they understand modern Middle Eastern history by seeing how in other parts of the world, in Europe but also in India, Africa, and in nineteenth-century United States history, there is fascinating research about this, and usually we don’t deal with it in our courses. So we’ll see how it goes—I’m looking forward to seeing students’ reactions.

Your first book was All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army, and the Making of Modern Egypt. The role of the army in recent events in Egypt has been much discussed. What role has the army played throughout the history of modern Egypt?

That’s a fascinating question. The prominent Egyptian journalist and public figure Hassanein Heikal, who was very close to President Nasser in the 1960s, who was basically his mouthpiece, is still alive and very active, and he’s famous for saying lately—and he’s talking about the centrality of the army in Egyptian public life over the past half-century, and also commenting on the fact that the Egyptian army, unlike the armies of neighboring countries, most infamously Iraq, but also Syria and of course Yemen, is intact and it’s solid and it’s seen as thepillar that supports the Egyptian state—he has a famous saying that goes as follows, that it’s not that modern Egypt had a state that succeeded in building an army, but in fact there was an army that built a state. And having studied myself the history of the Egyptian army in the nineteenth century, I can very much agree with this, but with an important key qualification. In my study of Mehmed Ali’s army in the first half of the nineteenth century, that was basically my hypothesis, that we didn’t have a state, we had small fiefdoms and principalities and Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire anyway, and then this soldier of fortune comes along, sees Egypt’s enormous wealth and decides to secede from the Ottoman Empire. To do so, he built an army. He started by conscripting men from Upper Egypt, and one thing led to another, and before we know it we ended up with what we now call the state. One example is medicine: Mehmed Ali conscripted these men, and they were falling ill, and he said, well, I need a medical service to cater for them, so he got this French doctor, Clot Bey, and that doctor told him, yeah, I’m ready, and all my colleagues who have been demobbed after Napoleon’s defeat are willing to come and serve, but this will cost you money, and it will be cheaper for you if you train local doctors. Mehmed Ali said, can you give me a plan? and the doctor presented a plan founding a modern training medical school that taught medicine in Arabic, and so we had a medical school. But the school needed books to be printed, and needed translators to translate the books, and so on and so forth, so one thing led to another and eventually we had a bureaucracy, we had institutions, we had schools, we had a publishing press, and all geared toward serving the army. Eventually these institutions had a life of their own, and became independent, and we had the modern Egyptian state, which is the envy of our neighbors.

So, on a certain level I agree with Heikal in his analysis, and I actually had been saying this myself in a different way. I say it seeing the sinister effect that the army had on Egyptian economic, political and cultural life. I say it also with some remorse, because I do not think this is a healthy thing, and one of the central questions I ask in my forthcoming book is what in fact have been the costs of having the army occupy such a central place in Egyptian public life. This is the central question that informs all my research. Yes, we, the Egyptian people, have succeeded in building a state that is more or less functional, that is efficient—relatively, compared to the havoc that is happening in neighboring countries. But I ask two central questions related to this, and they’re related particularly to the army, which are, What was the cost of building these institutions, who paid this cost? And second, another way of putting the question is, How else could we have done it, is this the only way to build a modern state? You can ask these two questions about the army, I think, not only in the nineteenth century but even now. We have a modern army, we have a powerful army, we have an intact army, but this army nowadays is doing things armies do not usually do. The army has mushroomed into a huge economic empire that has its own laws, its own courts, its own institutions, companies, banks, in a way that is completely unfamiliar in other parts of the world. It’s not the military industrial complex of the United States, it is not the so-called revolving door of Israel, whereby people from the army go into politics and then back into the army, it’s not the juntas of Latin America and their control of the economy. It’s a different paradigm. Egypt is setting a new model of the army interfering not only in politics but in the economy and social life in an unprecedented way, and I think this has a cost. The question is, what is the cost of the army having companies that produce not only jeeps and guns, but also washing machines and domestic appliances, and bottled water, and pasta, and having construction companies, and land reclamation companies, and agribusinesses, and travel agencies, and hotels, and hospitals, and universities. What’s the side effect of this? The rationale that the army presents is that we don’t want to be a burden on the Egyptian economy, so we will be self-sufficient. That goes all the way back to 1979, two years before Sadat was assassinated. He’s the one who started this edifice, immediately after signing the peace treaty with Israel, to placate his generals—that’s my cynical view—because they were now not doing anything, so he was telling them, OK, I’ll employ you in a different capacity, and I’ll reward you for not fighting the enemy in a very generous way. And that is how he did it. He established these economic institutions for the army to do all of these other things, and the way he presented in to the Egyptian public is that this is one way for the Egyptian army not to be burden on the economy.

This military economic empire has expanded so much that now, people estimate that the Egyptian army controls anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of the Egyptian economy. I think this has a very corrosive impact on Egyptian business, because the army is a competitor to public sector as well as private sector companies. It has a very corrosive impact on the combat readiness of the army: If the generals’ chief concern is not how to train their troops but how to produce pasta, this surely must have an impact on the combat readiness of Egyptian troops. It doesn’t require a PhD in Egyptian military history to come to that conclusion. The problem is that the army has prevented these questions from being asked, not simply by muzzling people, but by not putting these questions on the agenda, and by making it very difficult to answer these questions even if you manage to pose them, because the army is not subject to any kind of supervision or accountability. Constitutionally, according to the latest Egyptian constitution, the army is not mandated to present its finances to parliament. The army legally is exempt from taxation—its establishments do not pay taxes—and they are completely exempt from any auditing activity by any auditing agency in the state. So the press cannot have a say, the auditing agencies of the central government cannot have a say, parliament cannot have a say, independent academics or critics cannot ask these questions, and the army has become not only a state within a state, I think it has become more than this: it has become a foreign state, another entity. The army thinks of itself as apart from Egypt, so much so that the leading general in the junta just after Mubarak stepped down said, as a sign of how much the army is assisting the revolution, the army is going to donate to Egypt $1 billion. This was in the news, and he’s saying this with pride. So, the self-image of the army is that it is not an Egyptian army as much as it is an army apart from Egypt. It wants to defend Egypt, because that’s the milk cow, that’s where the wealth is. But it is not of Egypt. It is something apart. It wants to protect Egypt, that is very important, but it’s not part of the Egyptian state structure. It’s a very peculiar model that’s being forged, and I think it’s very, very dangerous.

Does the army use the same currency as the civilian population?

Yes, it has the same currency, but the army has its own bank accounts, its own banking system. It’s not that it uses a different currency, but it’s nominal money. Money circulates in a different way. We don’t know what comes in, we don’t know what goes out. We also don’t know, and that’s the main thing, the opportunity cost of any of the projects and products that the army engages with and produces. Take, most famously, the new Suez Canal extension. This was a huge project that the president gave to the army to perform—army companies. Not even government companies, not public sector companies, which were on standby—they were very envious of this lucrative business, a huge thing. But for political reasons, and to enhance his own credibility, el-Sisi said, we’re efficient—that is, the army is efficient—we can deliver, we will accomplish this mammoth project in one year. And it was done. The whole project was done in one year. But the question is, what was the cost of expediting it to be finished in one year? Time is money. Well, is it? For the army, time doesn’t count. It has no cost, or at least no cost that can be calculated in something akin to cost-benefit analysis. What we do know is there was a deep pressure on the Egyptian pound in the Egyptian banking sector, because there was a huge pressure to pay for these companies, and as a result there was a very acute shortage of dollars, and that put pressure on the pound. The main point is that we have not been given any statistics about the actual costs of this project and how else it could have been done—being phased over 18 months, two years, for example. So, it’s not that the army uses a different currency, but it deals with money in a different way, it deals with costs in a different way, it doesn’t actually factor in costs the way economists think of costs. It’s a very opaque financial and economic set of operations.

Is there any sort of ongoing critical conversation regarding the army’s special position outside, or parallel to, civil authority, or do people just not talk about it?

Yes, they talk, with huge risks. There’s scholarship—not a lot, but this is a serious phenomenon. Academically it’s attracting interest. I can see, both in Arabic and in English and maybe other languages as well, interesting, serious academic pieces that have started to appear over the past two years, to try and figure out exactly what this is that is happening and how it is happening, published in very serious, refereed journals. Yezid Sayigh, and Hicham Bou Nassif—the first is Palestinian, the second is Lebanese—they both write in English, and they both write in very reputable publications.

Within Egypt, there have been a number of people who are writing, with risks. I will mention three. Hamdeen Sabahi was a presidential candidate in the first and second presidential elections after Mubarak stepped down, so he’s a big public figure, and he supported the present government—even though he was running against el-Sisi, he eventually lost to him and he became a big supporter of him. Very recently he was on a famous primetime TV program talking about many things, including the army, in a very sober way, and in the middle of the program they shut down the channel. They actually switched off the lights in the studio, and then the channel went off air. This is just one example.

Another, from about three or four months ago, is a young, very energetic academic journalist, his name is Ismail Iskandarani, who has been a fellow in Washington and then in Germany and who has been following the army and its operations in the Sinai, specifically the combat activities against jihadists in the Sinai. He knows Sinai. He’s a Sinai specialist way before all of this started. He knows the tribes, he knows the villages, he knows the mentality, he knows the very fraught relationship between Cairo—the central government—and the tribes in Sinai. Now Sinai is awash with jihadists, and there are clashes, and it’s the army that is fighting them. And he dared to raise a politically delicate question, which is whether the army in its attempt to go after the jihadists had inadvertently lost the sympathy of the local tribes who were caught in between those two military forces: the army and the jihadists. Iskandarani was arguing that the tactics deployed by the army against the jihadists turned the tribes against the army, so much so, he claims, that a new wave of jihadists will be homegrown rather than imported, as we had suspected, from al Qaeda or from ISIS. This will be locally grown because of the resentment felt by the tribesmen against their own army. Basically Iskandarani dared to ask critical questions about the activities of, the very rationale of, the army’s war on terror in Sinai. He was in Germany, one of his parents fell ill, he decided to return to Egypt. But upon arrival in Cairo Airport, he was arrested. He has not been released.

A few weeks earlier, Hossam Bahgat, a prominent investigative reporter, and also the founder of the best Egyptian human rights organization, called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, had written two articles that the army deemed to be too sensitive. And both of them were again about the way the army conducts its operations against jihadists. These were very thorough journalistic pieces, unique in the meticulousness of their research. One was about an attempted coup, within the army, and the trial—there was a trial—of the people implicated. Bahgat covered the trial. The trial was kind of semi-public, and not many people were allowed in, but he was allowed in, and he followed up with interviews with relatives of the convicted officers. The second article that he wrote was about another trial. The army had gone after terrorists, and many of these terrorists were killed in the confrontation, others were arrested later on, put on trial, sentenced to death, and in fact hanged. Bahgat, however, had serious doubts about two of the convicted defendants, and based on meticulous research he suspected that some of them were actually already in army custody when the terrorist operation that they were supposed to have done happened, so they could not have been among the real culprits. The problem Bahgat faced was proving that these men were in army custody, for the whole thing hinged on a huge, secret military prison of the army in which they were detained. This prison is close to Ismailia on the Suez Canal. The army does not even admit the existence of this prison, let alone the presence of these two convicts there during this operation. So, it’s a very daring investigative reporting piece that he did, and he as a result, he was summoned and detained. But his friends and his colleagues in the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, as well as the publication he publishes in, called Mada Masr, which is in English and Arabic, got their act together and made a very big campaign that prompted no one less than Ban Ki-moon to issue a statement on his behalf. The result of this pressure was his release less than 72 hours after his detention. These are just examples of what it means for people to write critically about the army in Egypt now.

Since the revolution you yourself have been a regular contributor to the media, which your knowledge of the history of modern Egypt and your experience as a teacher well equips you for. Has your engagement with the popular media had any effect on the way you approach your work as a historian and teacher?

Khaled Fahmy in Tahrir Square, 2011
Khaled Fahmy in Tahrir Square, 2011

I find myself very fortunate to have been working on questions that I believe help me in making sense of what is happening now. I have been working on the history of the Egyptian military, I work on the history of the Egyptian police, I work on the history of the Egyptian judiciary—these are things I’ve been working on way before the revolution occurred five years ago in Egypt. And I’m a historian of modern Egypt in general, so I was fortunate to have picked up these topics and accumulated some experience in thinking about them. So when the revolution broke out, I found myself thinking, oh my god, this is what I study. And the second thing that I was fortunate about was that I actually was in Egypt. I had quit my job at NYU before knowing, of course, of what will happen, and I ended up in Egypt, and then four months later everything blew up and I was there in Tahrir watching it. And just to give you an actual, concrete example that I may or may not use in the book, this is a personal example of how my academic work and my activism intersected in an uncanny way. I still remember the day. It was an early winter Friday in November of 2011, and a friend called me up and said, Khaled, what are you going to do today, and I said I have some work to do, and she said, well, would you come with me to the morgue? I said, what? She said, well, you know about Essam Atta? I said yes, I have been following this case. It’s a case of a young 25-year-old man, and I’d just been following it for the previous week or so, because I had been following cases like this for ten years. This is a young guy who was arrested by, as it happens, military police two, three weeks into the revolution, on some charges. In a matter of a few days, he was put on trial with no lawyer, and sentenced to two years in prison. This happened without him actually attending his own trial. He found out about his sentence in prison, prison that he thought was a temporary detention but soon found out was where he will serve his two-year sentence. For a few weeks his family didn’t know his whereabouts. Finally they found out where he was, not in military prison, but in a normal civilian prison close to Cairo. His mother went to visit him, and she gave him a telephone chip to call her from inside the prison. A fellow inmate saw this, he reported him, and the prison officers decided to come and flush the chip out of his system. So they literally blew him up. They put a hose down his throat, another hose up his anus, and he died.

My friend said, now his body is in the morgue, his family is there, and we’re going to show our solidarity with the family. So I went. And of course the morgue is an awful, awful place, just a horrible, ugly place, ugly in so many ways; not only psychologically and legally but physically it’s an ugly place. Anyway, we went there, and the minute I stepped in there was something very odd that happened to me, it was like a serious déjà vu feeling that hit me. I found in the courtyard this young man on the phone, shouting and yelling, saying, I still remember, hayetfitih, he will be opened up, we will open him come what may, we will not bury him before being opened up. It turned out that this was Mohamed, Essam’s brother, and he was having a fight with his uncle, who was telling him look, let’s hush it up, we don’t want any confrontation with the police, let’s just bury the body. And the brother was insisting on an autopsy. And the reason I had this déjà vu feeling was that I thought I had witnessed it before. Well, I hadn’t witnessed it. I had read about it. This is exactly my research. I have come across numerous previous cases exactly like this, in the archives, from the nineteenth century in Egypt. I just suddenly found myself thinking, oh my god, this is the kind of question that I have been writing about and thinking about and here it is in front of me.

Since then Essam’s brother and I have become friends, and I call him up every now and then. He has not yet managed to get justice. He has failed in filing a case, even though he has received many strong forensic reports that substantiate his claim that his brother had been killed in this horrible way, in police custody. Not a single police officer has been convicted, or even charged. But Mohamed now is someone who for me is a beacon of bravery and intelligence and righteousness, and when I was in Egypt I would occasionally call him up, when I hear that there’s a demonstration or anything, and say, let’s go together. Mohamed is illiterate, his family is extremely poor, they have no help, they have no support. Mohamed has taught himself how to read and write, to get his brother’s right, to avenge his brother. He’s an amazing character, through and through, and it really makes us all very humble when one sees this kind of bravery. Lately Mohamed succeeded in convincing REDRESS, a human rights organization that helps torture survivors obtain justice and reparation, as well as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, to adopt his brother’s case. Together, the three organizations made a submission to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on his behalf, and accusing the Egyptian authorities for being responsible for the death in custody of his brother. He’s not the only person who has dared to defy the mighty Egyptian state in such a bold manner, but is one person I have come to know personally, and I’m always inspired by people like him. These are the kinds of intermingling of research and activism that I find myself contemplating and being enmeshed in.

Basically this is a unique moment in the history not only of Egypt but of the region, and we specialists in the Middle East, whether historians or political scientists or whatever our specialty may be, we recognize this—we recognize that something is happening, and that our field, the way we have studied it, the way we have taught it, is being radically transformed in ways that we’re struggling to cope with. It’s a frightening thing because our kind of world is collapsing, but it’s also exhilarating because it’s happening in front of our eyes and we’re witnessing it. It’s just a very unique historical moment to live in.

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