Sweetness in the Belly

( 11 )

Overview

When Lilly is eight years old, her pot-smoking hippie British parents leave her at a Sufi shrine in Morocco and inform her they will be back to collect her in three days. Three weeks later, she learns they've been murdered. Lilly fills that haunted hollow in her life with the intense study of the Qur'an under the watchful eye of the saint's disciple she was entrusted to. Years later, her journey from Morocco to Harar, Ethiopia, is half pilgrimage, half flight. In Harar, even her traditional Muslim head scarves ...
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Overview

When Lilly is eight years old, her pot-smoking hippie British parents leave her at a Sufi shrine in Morocco and inform her they will be back to collect her in three days. Three weeks later, she learns they've been murdered. Lilly fills that haunted hollow in her life with the intense study of the Qur'an under the watchful eye of the saint's disciple she was entrusted to. Years later, her journey from Morocco to Harar, Ethiopia, is half pilgrimage, half flight. In Harar, even her traditional Muslim head scarves cannot hide her white skin in her strange new surroundings; the word farenji - foreigner - is hissed at her at every turn. She eventually builds a life for herself teaching children the Qur'an, and she finds herself falling in love with an idealistic young doctor. But the two are wrenched apart when Lilly is again forced to flee, this time to London. Despite her British roots, Lilly discovers she is as much of an outsider in London as she was in Harar.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
While Kate Reading has a beautiful narrator's voice, low and lilting, dramatic and enticing, her characterizations are problematic. She often uses an annoying little-girl voice for protagonist Lilly, a white Western woman raised in a Moroccan shrine as a devout Muslim, living through the 1970s among Ethiopian Muslims who consider her a "forenji" (foreigner) despite her Arabic fluency and her Islamic piety. Reading also casts many of the Ethiopian women in a harsh, high range that makes them sound rather silly. Still, this is an engrossing listen because the novel is well written and timely. Gibb's prose rhythms are lovely, her language sensuous, her images vivid and her story of love doomed by political reality dramatic and moving. We move back and forth between the daily routines of deeply devoted families in Harar in the 1970s as Ethiopia disintegrates, and of the exile community in London in the '80s as Lilly awaits word of her Sudanese lover, who chose to stay on to fight the Haile Selassie regime. Without avoiding cultural aspects Westerners find so repulsive-a description of ritual clitoridectomy is almost unbearable-the reading exposes us to Muslim communities quite different from those written about in daily newspapers, communities worthy of respect, concern and action. Available as a Penguin Press paperback. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Called farenji-foreigner-in Ethiopia and subsequently nurse at London's Lambeth Hospital, Lilly is a devout white Muslim woman who doesn't really belong to one culture. When she was eight, her wandering parents left her in the care of the Great Abdal-and never returned owing to a fatal car accident. Soon after, the local saint became Lilly's guardian and taught her the Qur'an. In 1969, when political upheaval comes to Morocco, she makes a pilgrimage to the ancient city of Harar in Ethiopia. Here she begins to teach the Qur'an to local children and falls in love with a young doctor who leaves an indelible mark on her life. In 1974, she is again forced to flee, this time to London. Canadian writer Gibb (The Petty Details) intertwines time, cultures, politics, race, and family, giving readers an inside look at life as a foreigner in a different culture than most of us experience. Politically intriguing while also touching on love and loss, this well-wrought work should enthrall Western readers. Recommended for larger literary collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/05.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A white Muslim woman's affecting spiritual and emotional quests, as a misfit in two cultures. Gibb (Mouthing the Words, 2001, etc.) immerses herself completely in her gravely empathetic narration of the unusual life of Lilly, daughter of hippies murdered in Morocco, leaving her orphaned, aged eight, in the care of distinguished Muslim guardians who later send her for safety to Ethiopia. Lilly's unique cross-cultural perspective is Gibb's means of access to a belief and a country rarely tackled by contemporary Western writers. Moving from the walled city of Harar in the 1970s to a run-down London borough in the '80s, Lilly switches between differently impoverished locations where her identity is tested and modified by varying degrees of oppression and incomprehension. Hers is a story of female communities where women not only work, cook, give birth and apply makeup, but also circumcise their daughters, select husbands and fight for legitimacy. In Harar, Lilly's white skin defines her as a farenji (foreigner), and her education in the Qur'an isolates her further, but she earns her acceptance by teaching poor children, thereby also gaining the admiration of a progressive doctor, Aziz, whom she learns to love. When famine strikes Ethiopia and the political climate shifts from relative tolerance to dictatorship, Lilly flees to England, where she will spend agonized years speculating on Aziz's fate. In London, she not only becomes a nurse but also, with Ethiopian friend Amina, sets up an agency to re-connect refugee Ethiopians, which is how Amina rediscovers her husband Yusuf, damaged by torture and incarceration. Scarred Yusuf, increasingly Westernized Amina, grieving Lilly-now wooed by aHindu doctor-reflect the pain, cultural relocation and uncertainty of tribal, political and religious refugees the world over. Gibb's territory is urgently modern and controversial but she enters it softly, with grace, integrity and a lovely, compassionate story. A poem to belief and to the displaced-humane, resonant, original, impressive.
From the Publisher
One of Amazon.ca's Best Books of 2005
National Bestseller
Winner of the Trillium Book Award
A Scotiabank Giller Prize Finalist
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of 2005

Sweetness in the Belly is a timely and compelling novel of ideas which explores the ethics of cultural identity in a multicultural era. . . . [It] is a sophisticated, ambitious and deeply affecting novel which is devastatingly relevant to our contemporary world.”
–2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury citation

“Gibb’s Africa is finely crafted, as is her delicate rendering of the complexities of Ethiopian society. . . . The book rings true.”
Time Magazine

“This complex tale about exile, romance and human rights combines the authority of Gibb’s scholarship on social anthropology with the lushness of her fictional vision.”
Elle Canada

"Ambitious . . . vivid and rich in detail, politically relevant and eminently readable."
The Globe and Mail

"This is a rarity, a novel that transforms expectations. A hugely ambitious work executed with deceptive ease, it is an unbelievably odd tale, yet utterly convincing, able to transport us behind closed borders and back again. . . . The back-and-forth structure succeeds brilliantly . . . With Sweetness in the Belly, you know something other than lived experience is at work, and that something is a roving mind, a questing heart. Watching them land like butterflies on raw truth is a marvellous sight to behold."
The Gazette (Montreal)

"A marvellous, highly absorbing read bound to strike up conversations at award time."
Ottawa Citizen

"Full of life and keen observation of women and how they rise above the terrible things that can happen to them, how they form communities, how they find strength to begin again. This may be Lilly’s story, but behind her stands the larger story of her Muslim friends. They are what make the novel so extraordinary, so rich."
National Post

"Camilla Gibb’s integration of history and fiction in Sweetness and the Belly is superb. . . . Gibb’s crowning achievement is a knack for creating believable historical characters. Characters whose credibility is anchored by the convincing commonplace of their lives."
Winnipeg Free Press

“A wonderful feat of imagination and empathy.  I had to suppress bitter feelings of literary envy, even as I couldn't stop devouring it.”
—Louis de Bernières

Sweetness in the Belly is a deeply imagined immersion into the lives of people for whom war, poverty, marginalization and exile are the commonplace trials. Gibb’s understanding of this world seems almost uncanny but it is her compassion for her characters that impressed me the most. Here is a novel that challenges and disturbs as it enlightens and uplifts. A really exceptional achievement.”
—Barbara Gowdy

“With Sweetness in the Belly, Camilla Gibb offers persuasive testimony about her ambition as a novelist. . . . This novel is impressive for its geographic and thematic broadness alone. Gibb makes it that much more remarkable with the careful attention she gives to the psychology of belonging.”
The Vancouver Sun

Praise for the work of Camilla Gibb:
"Camilla Gibb is surely one of the most talented writers around. . . . She can do funny, she can do sad, she can do sex. I suspect that there is little this wonderful woman cannot do."
The Times (London)

"If you love literature, but are feeling discouraged by mediocre books, here’s the cure. . . Camilla Gibb has released a startingly beautiful account of an ordinary life, showcasing her ability to transform the normal into the fantastic. The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life secures Gibb’s status as an extraordinary talent."
Edmonton Journal

"The power of [Gibb’s] fiction is that one assumes nothing. Gibb is too intelligent an author to take the easy path."
National Post

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143038726
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/27/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 648,495
  • Product dimensions: 5.26 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Camilla Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University for which she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia. Her two previous novels, Mouthing the Words and The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life, have been translated into eleven languages and published to rave reviews around the world. She is one of 21 writers on the “Orange Futures List” — a list of young writers to watch, compiled by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize. She is currently Writer in Residence at the University of Toronto.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue
Harar, Ethiopia

The sun makes its orange way east from Arabia, over a Red Sea, across volcanic fields and desert and over the black hills to the qat- and coffee-shrubbed land of the fertile valley that surrounds our walled city. Night departs on the heels of the hyenas: they hear the sun’s approach as a hostile ringing, perceptible only to their ears, and it drives them back, bloody lipped and panic stricken, to their caves.

In darkness they have feasted on the city’s broken streets: devouring lame dogs in alleyways and licking eggshells and entrails off the ground. The people of the city cannot afford to waste their food, but nor can they neglect to feed the hyenas either. To let them go hungry is to forfeit their role as people on this wild earth, and strain the already tenuous ties that bind God’s creatures.

A hundred years ago, when the city’s gates were still closed at night — the key lodged firmly under the sleeping head of a neurotic emir — the hyenas were the only outsiders permitted access after dark. They would crawl through the drainage portals in the city’s clay walls. But the gates are splayed open now, have been for decades, a symbol of history’s turn against this Muslim outpost, a city of saints and scholars founded by Arabs who brought Islam to Abyssinia in the ninth century, the former capital of an emirate that once ruled for hundreds of miles.

For all the fear they inspire, though, if a hyena must die, one hopes it might do so on one’s doorstep. Pluck its eyebrows, fashion a bracelet, and you are guaranteed protection from buda, the evil eye. Endure the inconvenience of having to step over a hideous corpse baking in the African sun all day, but be assured that by the following morning, thanks to hyenas’ lack of inhibitions regarding cannibalism, the street will once again be licked clean.

As every day begins, the anguished cries of these feral children grow dim against a rising crescendo of birds quibbling in the pomegranate and lime trees of the city’s courtyards. And then the muezzins call: beckoning the city’s sleeping populace with a shower of praise for an almighty God. There are ninety-nine of them within the walls of this tiny city — ninety-nine muezzins for ninety-nine mosques. It takes the culmination of the staggered, near-simultaneous beginnings of a hundred less one to create the particular sound that is heard as Godliness in Harar.

*
• *
• *
• *

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you ca’n’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

Part One
London, England
1981–85

Scar Tissue

On a wet night in Thatcher’s Britain, a miracle was delivered onto the pockmarked pavement behind a decrepit building once known as Lambeth Hospital. Four women standing flanked by battered rubbish bins looked up to a close English sky and thanked Allah for this sign of his generosity. Two women ululated, one little boy, shy and tired, buried his face in his mother’s neck, and one baby stamped with a continent-shaped mole tried out her lungs. Her wail was mighty and unselfconscious, and with it, she announced that we had all arrived in England. None of us had hitherto had the confidence to be so brazen.

I was one of those four women. I trained in this God-forsaken building, a gothic nightmare of a place, a former workhouse where the poor were imprisoned and divided — men from women, aged and infirm from able bodied, able-bodied good from able-bodied bad — each forced to break a daily quota of stone in order to earn their keep. Adjacent is the old infirmary, which once had its own Register of Lunatics, among them a woman named Hannah Chaplin diagnosed with acute psychosis resulting from syphilis while in residence there with her seven-year-old son Charlie, some eighty years ago.

I don’t share this history though I’ve moved within its walls. In the places I have lived, the aged and the infirm and the psychotic are not separated from the rest of us. They are part of us. I don’t share this history, but as a child, I did see a Charlie Chaplin film in a cinema in Tangier through the smoke of a hundred cigarettes. I sat cross-legged between my parents on a wooden bench, a carpet of peanut shells at our feet, the audience roaring with laughter, united by the shared language of bodies without words.

Amazing that humour could ever be borne of this place. The building now stands condemned, slated for demolition, and I work at South Western, a hospital largely catering to the poor from the beleaguered housing estates in the surrounding areas: the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the unemployed white, the Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants and the refugees and asylum seekers, the latest wave of which has been rolling in from torn parts of East Africa, principally Eritrea and Sudan.

Many of these claimants avoid the hospital, overwhelmed or intimidated as they are by the agents and agencies of the state — the customs officers, police, civil servants, lawyers, social workers and doctors — with their unreadable expressions and their unreadable forms. I know this, because they are my neighbours. I encounter them in the elevator, in the laundrette, in the dimly lit concrete corridors of high-rises on the Cotton Gardens Estate. I’ve lived in a one-bedroom council flat on the fourteenth floor of one of these buildings since the autumn of 1974 — compensation for the circumstances of my arrival.

My white face and white uniform give me the appearance of authority in this new world, though my experiences, as my neighbours quickly come to discover, are rooted in the old. I’m a white Muslim woman raised in Africa, now employed by the National Health Service. I exist somewhere between what they know and what they fear, somewhere between the past and the future, which is not quite the present. I can translate the forms for them before kneeling down and putting my forehead to the same ground. Linoleum, concrete, industrial carpet. Five times a day, wherever we might be, however much we might doubt ourselves and the world around us.

I was not always a Muslim, but once I was led into the absorption of prayer and the mysteries of the Qur’an, something troubled in me became still.

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Table of Contents

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Lilly Abdul's life is filled with contradictions she has neither the will nor desire to reconcile. A white Muslim raised in Africa, she now works for the National Health Service in London. As she struggles with the circumstances of her new life, she recalls the years before she came to Thatcherite England. In 1974, her hometown of Harar, Ethiopia, was a city of 99 mosques and shrines to more than 300 saints. Life there revolved around five daily prayers and the teachings of the Qur'an; and Lilly's spirituality was a source of comfort and calm. But history and politics were about to intervene. The end of Haile Selassie's decades-long reign seemed imminent, and Harar, which had survived centuries of war, famine, pestilence, and foreign invasion, was approaching chaos.

Fleeing Ethiopia, Lilly arrives in London with little more than hope and the desire for a new life. But for Lilly, it's what she's left behind that haunts her. Far away from the man she loves, lost to her during the city's upheaval, Lilly struggles with a deep loneliness and questions the relevance of her faith.

An unflinching portrait of two nations, religions, and cultures, in Sweetness in the Belly, Gibb has taken a hard look at some difficult truths. The result is a sharply detailed, sweeping portrait of human complexity -- and masterful storytelling. (Summer 2006 Selection)
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Foreword

1. Discuss Lilly’s role as an outsider and her struggle for acceptance both as a farenji in Harar and as a white Muslim in London. Who else in the novel could be considered an outsider?

2. What do the words “family” and “home” mean to Lilly? How does her view of herself as an orphan evolve over the course of the novel?

3. “Faith has accompanied me over time and geography and upheaval,” says Lilly. For her, love and Islam “have always been one.” Did Sweetness in the Belly in any way alter or broaden your understanding of Islam? Consider, for instance, the notion of jihad or holy war.

4. Sweetness in the Belly alternates between Harar, Ethiopia, in the 70s, and London, England, in the 80s and early 90s. What qualities does this crosscutting of time and place impart to the narrative?

5. In the chapter entitled “Exile,” Lilly observes that “the smell of coffee draws women together, an olfactory call throughout a neighbourhood luring women from their homes to gather…” Later in the chapter, the act of twisting a mortar over coffee beans and cardamom triggers in her a surge of nightmarish images from the Red Terror. Of the many lush sensory details in the novel – both fair and foul – which affected you the most?

6. While living in Ethiopia, Camilla Gibb witnessed a female circumcision. A doctoral student in social anthropology at the time, she says she had to “understand it in the context of the community in which it was taking place, and not judge.” When Nouria’s daughters are circumcised in Sweetness in theBelly, how does Lilly react as the only Western-born character in the scene? How did you react as a reader?

7. Based on your reading of Sweetness in the Belly, what feelings and psychological states are associated with the experience of exile? How do Amina and Yusuf, for example, cope with their respective traumas?

8. In Harar, Aziz is called a “black savage, African slave, barbarian, pagan.” In London, Lilly is called a “white fu’in Paki.” Discuss the notion of “otherness” in the novel. How do artificial divisions manifest themselves based on ethnicity, class, race, religion and gender?

9. Discuss the ways in which the female characters ensure their survival and empower themselves despite the gender divisions within their communities.

10. What does Lilly mean when she says that Aziz “unveiled” her? How does she reconcile her love for him with her love of Islam?

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Reading Group Guide

1. Discuss Lilly’s role as an outsider and her struggle for acceptance both as a farenji in Harar and as a white Muslim in London. Who else in the novel could be considered an outsider?

2. What do the words “family” and “home” mean to Lilly? How does her view of herself as an orphan evolve over the course of the novel?

3. “Faith has accompanied me over time and geography and upheaval,” says Lilly. For her, love and Islam “have always been one.” Did Sweetness in the Belly in any way alter or broaden your understanding of Islam? Consider, for instance, the notion of jihad or holy war.

4. Sweetness in the Belly alternates between Harar, Ethiopia, in the 70s, and London, England, in the 80s and early 90s. What qualities does this crosscutting of time and place impart to the narrative?

5. In the chapter entitled “Exile,” Lilly observes that “the smell of coffee draws women together, an olfactory call throughout a neighbourhood luring women from their homes to gather…” Later in the chapter, the act of twisting a mortar over coffee beans and cardamom triggers in her a surge of nightmarish images from the Red Terror. Of the many lush sensory details in the novel – both fair and foul – which affected you the most?

6. While living in Ethiopia, Camilla Gibb witnessed a female circumcision. A doctoral student in social anthropology at the time, she says she had to “understand it in the context of the community in which it was taking place, and not judge.” When Nouria’s daughters are circumcised in Sweetness in the Belly, how does Lilly react as the only Western-born character in the scene? How did you react as a reader?

7. Based on your reading of Sweetness in the Belly, what feelings and psychological states are associated with the experience of exile? How do Amina and Yusuf, for example, cope with their respective traumas?

8. In Harar, Aziz is called a “black savage, African slave, barbarian, pagan.” In London, Lilly is called a “white fu’in Paki.” Discuss the notion of “otherness” in the novel. How do artificial divisions manifest themselves based on ethnicity, class, race, religion and gender?

9. Discuss the ways in which the female characters ensure their survival and empower themselves despite the gender divisions within their communities.

10. What does Lilly mean when she says that Aziz “unveiled” her? How does she reconcile her love for him with her love of Islam?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2008

    A reviewer

    I found this book by chance since I am always interested in reading of other cultures and far-off destinations. This story is so interesting charting her progress from English girl to Islamic scholar to Islamic English nurse.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2007

    Touching

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book from cover to cover! It's more of a book for women I think because you can relate to her emotions.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2006

    Out of place in the eyes of God

    Gibb's third novel, SWEETNESS, is a masterpiece of literature and emotion. Lily is the protagonist in this superb novel--an arphan who has no direction. But the love of her friend, Amina, makes Lily aware that there is actually 'something' to life. I was at once reminded of two other novels that are this deep and heartfelt, the first obviously being 'The Kite Runner' because of its settings, and the second being 'Bark of the Dogwood' which, though totally different in location and style, is nevertheless as heartfelf and full of the message of 'love redeems.' Dealing with Islam and all its ramifications, SWEETNESS is surely to be a bestseller soon, if not for the fact that it deals with a religion we all want to know more about, then for its excellent writing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A STRANGER IN TWO WORLDS

    The voice of Lily is so real, so authentic, so rich in ethnic detail that one is immediately drawn into this imagined story of a woman displaced in two worlds. Stage actress Kate Reading gives an affecting voice reading, capturing all of the erudition and emotion found within this remarkable protagonist. The daughter of English/Irish parents who spend much of their time in a drug induced haze, young Lily is very much left to herself, free to find amusement on the streets of Morocco. One day she is abandoned by her parents at a Sufi shrine, saying they will return in three days. That day never comes as they are found slain several weeks later. With no one to shelter her Lily is taken under the wing of an Englishman who has converted to Islam. At the age of eight the child's life begins anew as she will live in the shrine and spend her days in religious study. At the age of sixteen when many girls are thinking about buying prom. dresses Lily travels to Ethiopia where she teaches the Qur'an to local children. Once again the color of her skin betrays her, and she is an outsider there. Nonetheless, she falls in love with a young doctor. Years later the outbreak of war forces her to seek refuge in London where as a woman she is again an outsider. Yet, it is her faith that sustains her. Sweetness in the Belly offers a telling portrait of a far away world that few of us will ever see. Listen and enjoy. - Gail Cooke

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2005

    Texture for the Senses

    Lilly, a ferenji child unintentionally deserted in the bosom of North Africa, grows up with strong roots throughout the region and even stronger ties to a mysterious and sensual Dr. Aziz. Lilly lives through the eyes of her refugee clients, having been spit out into a damp and unforgiving London as a refugee twice over. Gibb weaves a beautiful tapestry in Lilly, as we watch our heroine see her own reflection through the lives of her friends and acquaintances in Maroc, in Harar, and ultimately in London.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Despite the traumatic and violent true historical events movingl

    Despite the traumatic and violent true historical events movingly featured in this excellent novel, there is a sense that love is as perennial as the grass. There is true grief and despair and yet, and yet, one day at a time, the world is born anew. Love is as alive as the courageous heart that risks feeling it once again.

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    Posted May 14, 2010

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    Posted March 13, 2010

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    Posted September 10, 2012

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    Posted January 26, 2014

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