The Islamic Monthly — Winter/Spring 2012
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International: Ghostwriter for the Arab Leader
Ranjit Singh

People often approach the Arab Spring in terms of good and evil. But real monsters like Moammar Gadhafi aren't the rule. The everyday politics of dictatorship arise when self-interest meets pressures – usually conformist ones – that are mostly beyond our control, such as economic status, culture or the family into which one is born. Which is to say that you need not be innately bad to be a dictator (or to throw your support behind one); you only need to view the alternatives as unacceptable.

Twenty years ago, I worked for a young member of the ruling family of Bahrain, a tiny Persian Gulf monarchy. Today, as propagandist-in-chief, he champions that regime's merciless attacks on popular dissent. But what I saw then was not a portrait of evil or even unusual venality. Rather, I glimpsed from within a coming generation of political heirs that was thoroughly dependent and unprepared for responsibility. Their passivity and gilded isolation stood out far more than a penchant for villainy.

II.

Regrettably, Bahrain's uprising is becoming a forgotten story. Protests began in February 2011 at the Pearl Roundabout, a landmark traffic circle dominated by a monumental sculpture built in the early 1980s. Inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrainis sought to mark the 10th anniversary of their own country's failure to reform. Despite promises made in 2001, the Al Khalifa family, Bahrain's rulers since the late 18th century, had only tightened its grip on the politics and wealth of the smallest Arab state.

The regime answered the protests with astonishing brutality. Human Rights Watch described "a punitive and vindictive" assault intended "to end dissent root and branch." The crackdown produced an estimated 30 deaths; given Bahrain's population of only 525,000 nationals, this is equivalent to the U.S. government shooting more than 18,000 citizens. More than 1,000 people were detained. Torture, forced confessions and extrajudicial killings occurred with impunity. Foreign investigators found that security forces targeted protesters' heads, chests and abdomens. Even hospital workers attending the injured were attacked.

The regime then did something wholly unexpected, yet inarguably logical: On March 18, it demolished the Pearl Roundabout. Dump trucks carted away the monumental debris from the public space most associated with mass dissent. Bahrain's crisis, apparently, was over.

The monarchy's decision to destroy a national landmark speaks to its sense of immediate endangerment. However, the Al Khalifa family was jumpy well before the Arab Spring.

Its nerves showed in July 2010, when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa split his Ministry of Culture and Information into two unequal parts. The incumbent minister, an Al Khalifa woman, kept responsibility for culture and tourism. The more telling and urgent action concerned the information portfolio. In a public statement, King Hamad declared that Bahrain had become the target of "planned media provocations, particularly from Iran, to which the Bahraini media has not been able to respond as it must." He then decreed the creation of an Information Affairs Authority (IAA) to meet the Kingdom's "immense" political challenges.

The man the king picked to lead the new authority is Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa. As IAA chief, Sheikh Fawaz enjoys ministerial rank and is effectively Bahrain's Minister of Information, although only unofficial media use that Orwellian title. He held this position throughout the recent crackdown.

Sheikh Fawaz is a short, mild-mannered man with dumpling cheeks and a small gap in his upper teeth. His deadpan countenance is punctuated by heavy eyebrows and a graying mustache. In his mid-40s, the sheikh is fairly young; he recently chaired the country's Youth and Sport organization, and King Hamad took pains to present him last year as "part of a younger generation of rising Bahraini leaders." Sheikh Fawaz is courteous, unquestionably loyal, and, at base, unimaginative. He is also relentlessly competitive.

III

Sheikh Fawaz hired me in 1992. My job was to ghostwrite – to pen in his name – a monograph on the maritime boundary disputes between Bahrain and Qatar. At 27, I was a year older than the sheikh. I knew little about Gulf politics or international law. I was the friend, however, of a generous Palestinian professor who had advised senior Gulf sheikhs and for whom, while a student at Georgetown, I once drafted a forgettable speech to a Japanese audience.

One has to think 1992 was a good year for the Al Khalifa. The family's hold on Bahrain – then an Emirate, not a Kingdom – seemed as firm as it had ever been. More than a decade had passed since a botched coup d'etat failed to push Bahrain into Iran's revolutionary orbit. Rumor had it the plotters, posing as athletes from another country, were given away at the airport by their Iranian-made sneakers. The 1991 defeat of Saddam Hussein's army delivered the Al Khalifa from a different menace and restored their kin, the Al Sabah, to power in Kuwait. Bahrain's economy improved, too. Those were the ruling family's halcyon days. Many authors of the recent brutality were young princes then, enjoying the fruits of rule.

In truth, there is only one real prince in Bahrain, the crown prince, heir to the throne via the principle of primogeniture. The Al Khalifa give their other sons the title of sheikh. When we knew each other in 1992-93, Sheikh Fawaz was the eldest son of the powerful Minister of the Interior. His father had overseen Bahrain's domestic security since 1974, and continued to do so until 2004.

My professor arranged an interview in Sheikh Fawaz's hotel room near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. The sheikh informed me that he had just completed undergraduate studies at American University. He then explained that Qatar claimed possession of the small Hawar Islands, the Fasht al-Dibal shoal, and other minute banks and reefs between the two states. Qatar also claimed Zubara, a ruined town where the Al Khalifa's ancestral fort was falling into the sand. The sheikh wanted someone to argue Bahrain's side.

I didn't grasp, at the time, that our discussion was perfunctory, that my professor's good word meant the task of writing a slanted account of these disputes was mine for the taking. Sheikh Fawaz's question regarding my salary therefore came as a surprise. I had just fumbled through menial temp work with an international consulting firm (also arranged through a Georgetown friend) and had no other job in sight; I would have worked for beans, which to my thinking equaled about $2,000 per month, plus living expenses. I asked for $3,000 and the sheikh immediately assented. We never discussed the terms or duration of the job, or signed anything. Sheikh Fawaz just noted that he would be in London soon. He said I could begin background research there. Oddly, he also asked my thoughts on a correspondence course in law enforcement that had caught his eye. Our conversation lasted perhaps 30 minutes.

Weeks later, in October, I nervously called Sheikh Fawaz from my mother's farmhouse in Virginia. He had shown no urgency regarding my employment in previous calls. He was indeed in London and finally sent a plane ticket. A black cab deposited me a few days later at the sheikh's address in upscale Regent's Park. He stayed in a terraced, neoclassical house – implausibly long and narrow from within – that he said belonged to the queen.

I began spending mornings and afternoons in the archives of the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, reading handwritten 18th and 19th century documents pertaining to British gunboat diplomacy in the Persian Gulf. British captains had energetically reordered the Gulf to suit the interests of empire, lobbing a shell or two at recalcitrant sheikhs when necessary. Back at Regent's Park, the house servant, Gurpal, a stocky former soldier in the Indian army, appeared each evening and at breakfast. The house remained otherwise silent. One night, Gurpal chauffeured me to see Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives. I sat alone in the back of the sheikh's black Mercedes, which seemed enormous and apart from the world.

Sheikh Fawaz kept an irregular presence in the Regent's Park house. He did not allude to any work or reason for being in London. He was formally generous and not unfriendly, although I felt that his conservatively tailored clothes and languorousness belied his youth. The sheikh led a neatly groomed and scented retinue of four or five young Bahraini men that frequented a city mall popular among Arabs. I tagged along at times, enjoying their gossip about the affluent Kuwaitis and Saudis we saw in our perambulations. The young men spoke on brick-like cell phones about fancy clothes, pop music (Tone-Lōc's Funky Cold Medina was a favorite), cologne, clever ways to chat up pretty Saudi girls, and other ephemeralities.

Politics wasn't a favored subject of discussion for the sheikh. The Gulf War's scripted violence had left a strong impression: When prompted, he often reduced political matters to military or special forces' work. He revered the British royal family and the SAS, Britain's commando elite, and was surprised to learn that I had not voted for George H.W. Bush, the liberator of Kuwait. I soon learned that he admired winners in general. An avid sports fan, he supported Manchester United and the Dallas Cowboys, then the reliable champions of British and American football. For the first time in our acquaintance, this love of winners made his unfocused mind appear predictable.

IV.

A month later, I followed him to Manama, Bahrain's capital. Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 mostly inconsequential islands. Manama (Arabic for "a place to sleep") draws the country's population to the north end of the main island. Bahrain's appearance was changing rapidly in the early 1990s as it sought to lessen its reliance on depleting petroleum reserves through tourism and the provision of financial services. About 360,000 citizens awkwardly coexisted with 190,000 foreign nationals, mostly Asian males, working in construction and services. Filipinos and Indians dominated hotel and restaurant staffs. Unskilled laborers were often recruited from Pakistan. A small, comparatively wealthy stratum of Europeans worked in the booming finance, advertising, airline and other white-collar sectors, and socialized in the capital's bars. The 16-mile causeway connecting the main island to Saudi Arabia – recently the vital link for Saudi forces assisting the Al Khalifa regime – drew heavy traffic on weekends, when it was said Saudis sneaked booze home in the second gas tank of their Jaguar sedans. Few Bahrainis acknowledged the large U.S. naval base that remains today.

For several mornings after my arrival, I called Sheikh Fawaz from the room he had arranged for me in a middling hotel near the Manama souk. I didn't know where to go. He was unresponsive before 10 a.m. and seemed uncertain what to do. Filling time, I visited the new University of Bahrain and naively asked around for the political science department. The country's public university didn't teach the troublesome social sciences.

For the next seven months, I worked from a room in the state-run Bahrain Pension Fund. The sheikh had a comfy sinecure in the fund's upper management. Our offices, set in an ambitious sector of open lots and glassy new buildings called the Diplomatic Area, overlooked the bridge to Muharraq, Bahrain's second city.

The Pension Fund staff were commoners who spoke nostalgically of fading Gulf traditions, such as large family barbeques in the desert. A secretary kept up appearances by making visitors to the sheikh wait in the chairs by her desk. The boyish office gofer brought hot and cold drinks on demand and occasionally swooshed lit frankincense through the rooms. Sheikh Fawaz had a marvelously theatrical way of shouting his name – "Ishaaaaq!" – that carried well. While government hours are 7 to 2, a concession to the sweltering climate, I soon learned to arrive by 10, preceding by a half-hour the sheikh and his retinue, now clad in sensible, ankle-length thawbs rather than the woolen suits and slacks of London.

Daily proximity to Sheikh Fawaz revealed a life of ritual and mild material amusements. All told, he performed perhaps 20 minutes of Pension Fund-related work each day, mostly signing papers. He spent the rest of his time greeting guests and chatting with friends. He seemed to be blandly incurious and without serious prejudices. He certainly did not read or write for pleasure. In fact, my ability to make sense of ordinary maps surprised him, as if a mark of special training. He devoted much of his time to sports. The sheikh sponsored a local football team, often arranging its affairs from the Pension Fund. He promised several times to take me along to matches in Saudi Arabia. Each time, I made ready for the day trip, but he never remembered to arrange my visa in time.

Automobiles played important roles, too. A small collection of European luxury and exotic cars, including a yellow Ferrari, sat next to the sheikh's uncluttered apartment in the family compound. Yet I never saw the sheikh drive any car incautiously, or even take out the Ferrari – a flashy machine that seemed out of character. Most days he drove his elegant, 700-series BMW sedan. Before getting in the driver's seat, one of his retinue, an unrelated boyhood friend, always popped behind the wheel to turn the key and start the air conditioner. Then the sheikh would drive.

In this rather clichéd manner, Sheikh Fawaz's cars ceremonialized Bahrain's tight hierarchy of inherited authority and dependence. They also signified my own ambiguity within his circle. The sheikh once saw the four-wheel-drive Range Rover he had provided for my personal use covered in mud, the result of a winter downpour that flooded the old part of Manama, which lacked street drains. He winced as if he had been pinched. He politely asked my plans to have the car washed, and I shilly-shallied an answer. The capacious Rover was soon quietly replaced by a small Mercedes 190 with mechanical problems. The exchange worked to my disadvantage in more ways than one, for the Rover's license plates indicated it belonged to the sheikh's father, Bahrain's security chief. The Rover thus conferred comic book superpowers that induced Pavlovian salutes from traffic cops and building guards – such a machine rightly should not have been dragged through the mud. In contrast, a Pakistani mechanic once patched the undistinguished Mercedes with cardboard wrapped in twine. I noticed the snub only after the car broke down again a week or so later.

Sheikh Fawaz ordered his life and possessions with care, accumulating nothing that could be made into a pile in either home or office. His conduct offered glimpses into the moral economy of an Al Khalifa. The monarchy is not wholly bereft of tolerance; it just occurs near the apex, among the family's scattered layer of advisers and aides, many of whom are foreign born. The Al Khalifa are ambivalent about otherwise touchy matters if they judge someone useful to their purposes. Issues such as religion, my shopkeeper-ish Indian ethnicity or my habit of calling the sheikh by name without prefixing his inherited title – unthinkable for a Bahraini commoner – never came up. I wasn't unique: The sheikh's banker, the man who handed me cash each month, belonged to the same Iraqi-Jewish émigré family as Bahrain's current female ambassador to the U.S., also a Jew.

These relaxed attitudes don't emanate from some untold family streak of egalitarianism, for the Al Khalifa have never institutionalized any faith in common Bahrainis. Rather, they reflect the basic facts of their authority. The Al Khalifa are Sunni Muslims ruling a restive Shiite majority. This predicament is often overstated – discrimination and chronic inequality explain the Kingdom's centrifugal politics better than old doctrinal differences. Nonetheless, the strategy of minority rulers cultivating the support of other minorities is a tested one (witness Syria). The Al Khalifa also have a long history of reliance on authoritative foreigners, stretching over a century from Bahrain's days as a British protectorate past independence in 1971. Indeed, Bahrain is now a U.S. protectorate, as the quietly expanding presence of the 5th Fleet confirms. An American arms dealer dubbed "The Merchant of Death" was a recurring figure throughout my stay in Manama.

Learning that the affluent Al Khalifa could feel pinched was a revelation, too. The family appropriates much of the country's wealth to itself, but isn't mega-rich by Gulf standards. An opportunistic glance at Sheikh Fawaz's personal bank statement, left on a desk in his house, revealed a balance of 900,000 and change. I can't remember now if it was in dollars or pounds, and had no way of knowing how many accounts the sheikh kept. Yet that amount – memorable for its lack of a seventh figure – seemed right for a family son in his twenties without real responsibility. Indeed, the sheikh could evince a patrician's sense of economy that let him find thrift and virtue even in extravagance. From my office window, I once watched him exit a seemingly unfamiliar car and asked if he had bought a new one. He plainly replied that he had tired of the BMW's color and had it repainted rather than replaced. The car went from one dark color to another.

V.

That fall, we played occasional football matches that mingled pudgy Al Khalifa sons with privileged commoners and hangers- on like me. None of us had stamina, so the otherwise spirited matches were brief. Sheikh Fawaz played aggressively and took the results seriously. Playing for the opposing team, I once resorted to planting my body, statue-like, to block his progress to the goal. He lost control of the ball and muttered under his breath that I had committed a foul. We both knew I hadn't. Through these games, I befriended Sheikh H., Sheikh Fawaz's taller cousin and another young son of a top minister. Sheikh H. and his wife were an affectionate couple anxiously pursuing fertility treatments abroad. Unlike the severely Anglophilic Sheikh Fawaz, they preferred spending time in California.

Sheikh H. enjoyed talking politics, which also made him different from my employer. My visits to ordinary street cafes and other places where members of the ruling family would be conspicuous and unlikely to go piqued his interest. One day, he asked me what people said about the monarchy. I told him what I had often heard from fellow hookah-smokers in the souk: That the Emir Sheikh Issa, Bahrain's patriarch since 1961, was generally respected as a modernizer and symbol of vanishing traditions, despite his illiberalism. However, the people I chatted with considered Issa's eldest son and heir, Crown Prince Hamad, to be spoiled and not as intelligent as his father. The crown prince commanded Bahrain's Defense Force at the time.

I didn't mention Emir Issa's well-known practice of inviting to tea the bikini-clad women lying on "Sheikh's Beach," adjacent to his palace. The beach, now closed, was open to white expatriates only, a rule enforced by Pakistani guards (who tried to keep me out). I also kept mum about the surprisingly incautious lawyers I had met who spoke bitterly about the regime's poor human rights record and discrimination against Shiites. I found these middle-aged men in their cheap, gray suits in almost every coffeehouse or bar I frequented. None appeared bent on importing Iran's revolution. They seemed defeated and physically worn, even underweight, but determined to share with a foreigner their stories of regime prejudice and abuse.

VI.

Al Khalifa patriarchs have always ruled a complex and polyglot society. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, a 16th century Portuguese fort near Manama symbolizes the country's abiding strategic importance. Generations ago, the archipelago supported a world-class pearling industry that attracted traders from Persia, Arabia, India and beyond. In my work for Sheikh Fawaz, I read verified accounts of traders so practiced they could recognize individual pearls they last held in their hands decades before.

Mikimoto's cultured substitutes and the discovery of oil ended the pearling industry in the 1930s. Modern Bahrain works on the bases of stark social segregation, selective memory and diversion. I caught glimpses of the thousands of dark-skinned Asian laborers only as they fixed roads in the debilitating heat, or sat in the cheapest curry shops and all-male hookah stands where air conditioning was absent and Indian films played nightly on color TVs. Local lore had it that weather forecasters lied about the temperature to avoid work stoppages.

The island's wealthiest foreigners were diverted in ways that assumed – often accurately – an inebriate's view of the good life. Although the teetotaler Sheikh Fawaz showed no interest in nightlife, Manama groaned under the weight of barhoppable hotels and nightclubs. Many clubs featured teams of comely Filipinas belting out pop songs. A large bar in the downtown area catered to U.S. sailors, complete with country-themed karaoke, line dancing and Budweiser beer.

VII.

The Al Khalifa can't enjoy such diversions in plain view, of course. For New Year's Eve, my friends Sheikh H. and his wife threw a private party for about 20 Bahraini and expatriate friends. Sheikh H. asked guests to be discreet since he was serving liquor in his home, contra the Al Khalifa's assertion of piety. Sheikh Fawaz apparently wasn't on the guest list.

We sipped strong cocktails and danced. Darkened windows added to our sense of illicit fun. Sheikh H. clearly enjoyed hosting his friends and soon became happily drunk. When the liquor ran out, upsetting the party's natural rhythm, he placed an order with a Mexican restaurant several miles away. I accompanied him in his black Cadillac as we pulled through the restaurant's drive-up window. Servers handed us trays of Margaritas concealed in large fountain drink cups. I asked Sheikh H. if this rather public act worried him. He shrugged, saying the restaurant staff was Filipino and wouldn't mention the transaction to any Bahrainis. He didn't say what they had been paid to stay quiet. We then sped back to the party, exceeding 100 mph, with my eyes alternately glued to the speedometer and closed.

Later that night, Sheikh H. and I talked politics again. Tired, he quietly noted that he hadn't been surprised to hear that the crown prince wasn't liked in the cafes. He said this accorded with his own sense of the future ruler's unpopularity. He added that others in the ruling family had serious doubts about the man, too. They worried that the crown prince was infatuated with the tiny military forces he commanded and wasn't savvy enough to handle the complexities of being emir. But, Sheikh H. admitted, nothing could be done about it.

Looking back, Crown Prince Hamad may have felt little need for the savvy of an emir. He succeeded his father in 1999, and, in 2002, elevated his own title from "His Highness the Emir" to the historically unprecedented "His Majesty the King of Bahrain." Today, he shakes that vainglorious title over a resentful patrimony less than one-third the size of Rhode Island.

VIII.

By spring 1993, I had read stacks of archival documents and reports on the boundary disputes with Qatar. These included a few classified files Sheikh Fawaz handed to me that described saber-rattling between the two countries, incidents in which naval vessels of the respective countries, manned largely by foreigners, literally unsheathed their guns as they passed near each other. These watery theatrics left Sheikh Fawaz indignant. Of course, ownership of the many reefs and islands between the two states had implications for oil and gas exploration. Yet the sheikh always spoke to me as if only family honor mattered. This normally unexcitable man clearly disliked Qatar's Al Thani rulers. He viewed the boundary disputes as a contest between entitled Al Khalifa patricians and Al Thani nouveau riche – possessors of the world's largest natural gas field, rulers of the country with the world's highest per capita GDP, and, one might add, imminent founders of the upstart Al-Jazeera TV network. Propelled by rivalry, Sheikh Fawaz simply wanted to beat them this time.

The sheikh's casual response to my request to see some of the disputed areas for myself, perhaps by helicopter, brought yet another perspective to my work one day. He looked at his watch and said, "You can't. They're under water now." The isolated shoal I had asked about, called Fasht al- Dibal, is what scientists call a low-tide elevation: exposed at low tide and submerged at high tide. I realized I was ghostwriting a political history of places that, in some cases, daily vanished beneath the Persian Gulf 's tides. Poetic as that seemed, I doubted most commoners cared a wit about the disputes, except, possibly, the handful of obsolete "artisanal" fishermen who still visited the polluted shoals and reefs. Pursuing this point, I asked Sheikh Fawaz several times about the intended readership of the monograph I had been hired to write: Who would read it? He never answered my question; apparently, it hadn't occurred to him, and he didn't want to think about it.

My job began to change that spring, too. Sociologists say that pre-modern bureaucracies value personal relations over professional merit. Sheikh Fawaz unwittingly supported this notion when he asked me to attend meetings with foreign investment companies seeking to do business with the national Pension Fund. Initially, I took notes while two chatty Merrill Lynch representatives pitched portfolio options. The reps struggled to discern my relationship with the sheikh they wanted to impress. The scene was repeated with other would-be fund partners, some of whom affected a false camaraderie that left Sheikh Fawaz unmoved. After a while, he asked if I would write a report on the Pension Fund's performance. The idea was laughable – I knew nothing about investment. But I didn't say no. Staring at the fund's data, I parroted the language of "small caps" versus "big caps" and other terms found in the introductory investment texts Sheikh Fawaz supplied, and wrote his report, inserting a couple of charts for gravitas. He said no more about it.

By early summer, I had produced a well-documented but aimless draft of 80 or 90 pages on the disputes with Qatar. I asked the sheikh for comments before finishing. He didn't look at it. Perhaps sensing he had made a mistake, he started making noises about leaving Manama to attend military academy in the U.K. He repeatedly mentioned Mons, a British officer training school that had graduated the crown prince, but closed years before. I assumed he was getting rid of me. My own inefficiencies over recent months seemed glaring. But then the sheikh asked if I would consider writing a doctoral thesis for him at Cambridge or another elite English university. I quickly said no; ethical considerations aside, I knew he was unlikely to do it anyway (a correct assumption, it turned out). My job ended as ambiguously as it began: The sheikh simply said he would be gone by a certain date. I moved out of the Pension Fund office. After unsuccessfully looking for other work, I left Bahrain in August 1993.

I haven't seen Sheikh Fawaz since. I left a copy of the draft and all my notes on a desk in his home. For reasons I can't recall, I spoke with him by telephone one or two years later. "When are you coming back to finish the book?" he asked, in a friendly manner. He didn't seem to remember that he had let me go.

IX.

I Googled Sheikh Fawaz many times this past year. He has severely curtailed foreign and local media since becoming information minister in 2010. In the months preceding the Arab Spring, the anti-censorship group Reporters Without Borders dropped Bahrain's rank from 119th to 144th in the world. As regime apologist, the sheikh still speaks in the same, mildly narcotized cadence that suggests aristocratic ennui more than stupidity. He effusively praises the largely foreign security forces responsible for the killings, torture and detentions, while claiming that outsiders want to destabilize the country. Even so, the minister now insists, the affairs of the Kingdom are "back to normal."

Indeed, so it may seem. Early last summer, the international body that governs Formula One racing debated whether to reinstate Bahrain's annual Grand Prix event. The prestigious race originally had been scheduled for March, but was canceled by the violence. Days before the body's decision, London's The Independent reported that a quarter of the staff of the Bahraini agency hosting the event had been detained, physically abused and sacked. All the detainees were Shiites. But the race came back. A relieved Sheikh Fawaz – now with 14,000-plus followers on Twitter – ecstatically praised the current crown prince "for his great exertions to return the Grand Prix race to Bahrain." Echoes of the sports-obsessed young heir pinged through my head.

The sheikh is playing a game he cannot win and merits no sympathy. But no one chooses to be born into a ruling family. He was a rigid and competitive yet unsinister man 20 years ago. What would he have become given a different pedigree? Dictatorships, like Sheikh Fawaz today, work to obscure those choices.

Ranjit Singh is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington.
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