Film Discussion: "Tomorrow We Will See"

Monday, October 1, 2012

Shibley Telhami and film director Soraya Umewaka discuss the film Tomorrow We Will See, which follows a new generation of artists and designers living in Beirut.

DOUGLAS JEHL: Welcome, everyone, to today's meeting. I'm Doug Jehl. I'm the foreign editor of The Washington Post and very glad to be here with you. So welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations film screening and discussion of "Tomorrow We Will See," a new film by director Soraya Umewaka.

I'd like to ask you first to please completely turn off and not just put on vibrate your cellphones, since the signal will disrupt the audio tonight.

A reminder also that this meeting is on record. And before we begin to tonight's program, the council is pleased to announce an upcoming lunch meeting on Wednesday, October 10th, featuring Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase and Company. For more information on that event and others, please refer to the insert in the back of tonight's program.

So tonight's film follows a new generation of artists and designers living in Beirut and deals with the themes of national identity, freedom of thought and post-conflict civil society development.

At the conclusion of the film we'll have a chance to speak with the director, Soraya Umewaka, as well as with Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland.

So now please enjoy "Tomorrow We Will See."

(Film screening.)

Well, let me congratulate the director, Soraya, for producing such a remarkable film with timeless images of Beirut and artists who spoke with insight to match their accomplishment in the artistic world. We're very lucky to have Soraya. (Applause.)

Soraya's full biography's in the program, but I'd just mention that this is her third film. She's a graduate of Princeton University and grew up the daughter of a Lebanese mother, who, as you saw, was the producer of the film --

SORAYA UMEWAKA: She's right here. (Applause.)

JEHL: -- but spent most of her life in Japan.

And we're also fortunate to have Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor of Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, known to many of you and to so many of us in Washington as a -- as a scholar, an expert on the Arab-Israeli peace process but also on issues of identity and public opinion across the Arab world.

But Soraya, let me ask -- let me ask you -- we talked earlier this evening and you said that you began to -- you spent summers in Lebanon when you were growing up, from the time you were a child, so beginning in the early 1980s, and would go away and come back, go away and come back.

So as you began your career as a -- as a filmmaker, what was it that you -- that compelled you to make a film about Lebanon and compelled you to make this film that in so many ways was so assertively apolitical?

UMEWAKA: So basically there's a lot of negative media coverage on Lebanon, and that's one of the main reasons why I wanted to introduce a documentary that explores Lebanon through a different light.

And yeah, I would visit Lebanon ever since I was a child, but I would only go there for -- during the summers. And I really wanted to spend a long -- like a lengthy period of time in Lebanon. My grandmother is still in Lebanon, and she's suffering from memory problems, so I wanted to spend some time with her. So that was one of the main reasons.

JEHL: We heard one of the characters say that there are no memories in Lebanon. But what -- do you have memories of war and conflict from your visits or was it something else that was most enduring?

UMEWAKA: I think I was too young to remember the war, but I would definitely -- I would notice the buildings, the scarred buildings. And I wanted to return in 2006, but I couldn't because of the war. So -- yes. (Chuckles.)

JEHL: Shibley, it -- beyond being a scholar of the Middle East, you're also someone who cares and -- cares about and appreciates the arts. Do you think that the artistic life in Lebanon that we saw depicted in this film is so rich because of its troubled past or in spite of its troubled past?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, first of all, it's interesting -- you know, you say this -- the background because, you know, the Council on Foreign Relations has to have a foreign policy expert even when they're talking about a film about the arts. And I assume that's what they actually invited me -- but that's not why I accepted. I accepted because I wanted to see the art and the architecture. And in fact what the Council on Foreign Relations didn't know about me is that my hobby is actually design and architectural design and sculpture and art. So it is my escape from the ugliness of politics, just like it is the escape for these artists.

So in some ways I -- you know, I have that experience that I share with them, and I wanted to see the film more than I wanted to comment about politics so much.

But first, on this issue of the art community, obviously, this is just (zakat ?). This is a small -- even for artists in Lebanon, this isn't the artist community in Lebanon; this is one artist community in Lebanon, a very good one, and very much cutting-edge one in terms of being globally connected. It's not very representative.

But there is, in every place I go -- in Cairo, I know there's a very rich artist community that is also struggling with identity and politics, and they are -- they do wonderful paintings -- one of my favorite painters, Wagi (ph), who does fantastic work. And they meet on regular bases, and they have their own life, you know, that they try to wall off the rest of the city and the rest of politics. Morocco, of course, has many such communities. So it's not just the war and conflict. Obviously, that does bring it to the forefront.

And I think, you know, when I -- when I was just watching this -- I mean, when you look at -- as much as these artists wanted to wall off the politics and the sectarianism, they were obsessed with it because it defined everything they did. And you know, in particular, you know, this issue of identity, which has -- which has always kind of interested me as a scholar, but also in terms of watching people and how they define themselves. And it's fascinating because you hear these artists, particularly when they're doing the colors, they don't want to talk about sectarianism, and some who say, I'm not -- you know, I don't want to be a Muslim and I don't want to be a Christian; I don't even want to be Lebanese; I think even sexuality is socially constructed. You go to that extreme.

On the other hand, you can't escape it. And as you know from the civil war in Lebanon, where we had, you know, one of the jokes that was going at that time, when you have a militia stopping a car and asking everybody, are you a Christian; are you a Muslim, and the guy says, I'm an atheist; says, what kind of atheist; are you a Christian atheist or a Muslim atheist -- (laughter) -- there is no escaping that reality, at some level. And yet here's the fascinating story about Lebanon is that in all -- you know, I study Lebanese politics, and I do public opinion polls in Lebanon. And one of the things I study is identity. And I compare it with five other countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

And when you ask people, you know, what is most important to you; I know you have multiple identities; you are, you know, at once a Muslim or Christian; you are an Egyptian, a Jordanian; you are -- you're a -- you're an Arab; you're a citizen of the world; you could be all these things, but which one is most important to you today, in all the Arab countries, only a minority say Egyptian first or Jordanian first, a Moroccan first. Usually, you know, Muslim actually is a plurality, and then Arab, and a combination of both. In Lebanon, every single sect, the overwhelming majorities, the only country where consistently, every single year, Lebanese, whether they're Shia or Sunni or Christian, when you ask them, what are you first, they say, first, Lebanese, overwhelmingly. And the sect, for some reason, is understated even as a second identity. They prefer to say, I'm an Arab second or something than I'm a Muslim or Shia or Sunni or Christian second. So it's very fascinating.

And that may actually be -- certainly the product of a -- of a common history that they cherish, but it might also be a fact that that identity is under constant assault. So the very sectarianism that's threatening to who they are and their lives that cannot be separated, because they cannot be separated, they -- if you're a Shia, you cannot imagine a Shia state separate from the rest. If you're a Christian, you cannot -- you can't imagine -- too small to constitute a viable state. They're inescapably Lebanese. And I think that story really comes through in a -- in a wonderful way in this combination of art and politics.

JEHL: Among the other things that come through are some fundamental tensions, though. There's the -- there's the tension between the past that some want to forget, but also -- but also to preserve. And there's the notion that the -- that Lebanon's problems are brought on by others, but also a sense that, no, perhaps Lebanon is responsible for its ills. Your characters struggled in -- with those issues, I think, Soraya. Did you feel that in the end, some of them were -- had come to some kind of reconciliation, or is the -- are those tensions sort of central to their identities?

UMEWAKA: (Inaudible) -- I choose 10 different artists from very different social backgrounds, socio-economic backgrounds, and also different sects. And each person struggles with their identity in a different way. Hamid Dasinga (ph), for example, doesn't believe necessarily in identity.

But I chose the 10 artists mainly because they were all very critical of the sectarian divisions, and I appreciated that because when you go to Lebanon, you see a lot of identity politics.

You -- like, for example, if you're driving, sometimes the back of this -- on the back of the car, you would see, for example, a rosemary stuck on the -- stuck on the back of the car. And during Christmas, you see a lot of Santa Clauses. And, you know, the mosques, the prayers become louder, and -- so I did choose artists who wanted to somehow distance themselves from these divisions.

JEHL: And Shibley, that tendency to blame others for your problems is of course so deeply human. But do you find it particularly Lebanese?

TELHAMI: No, I don't, actually. I think it was kind of interesting, that one particular guy who pointed at that. I don't think so. And frankly, I don't even think it's an Arab thing. I think it's a -- most -- if you go to Latin America, if you go to parts of Asia -- India, particularly -- I mean, sure, people -- some people transcend it, and that's the only way you can move forward. But the fact is, that's not -- you know, particularly countries that have been, you know, on the losing end of relationship, particularly with the West, it's been -- it's been a constant theme. And certainly, in the Arab world, you find it.

But I want to go back to something you said just in that exchange, which I thought was interesting. You started with that question about, someone say Lebanese have no memories -- you know, we have no memories. And it's a fascinating story because you really have two interpretations going on here, and you see them in the film. And that is one -- you know, everybody who goes to Lebanon falls in love with it first. I mean, I don't know -- you know, maybe there are some people who don't fall in love with it, but it's hard not fall in love with it, with all its contradictions. It's just a magnificent place. And it's not just the country and the physical beauty of the country, but the people. I mean, it is -- there is something luring about that mixture.

But if you -- one thing you notice is the Lebanese love life. They live it. They live it -- you know, you go in, and -- even in the middle of conflict and war and bombing, and people are having dinners and sitting out, you know, late. And one interpretation of that was what we heard, which is that, you know, the experience of -- you don't know how long you're going to live, essentially; you don't know there'll be a tomorrow, so let me live up today.

Well, I wonder whether that is not an invention constructed postwar people -- by people who lost memory. You have the old man who was a wonderful -- and had a wonderful ending, which is saying, life is beautiful, you must honor it. Whether that's not the real Lebanese, that preceded even the civil war, because Lebanon lived it up way before the civil war when there was seemingly no prospect of civil war.

So I wonder whether that issue of memory here is itself intermingled with something different that extends way beyond the war and conflict about the Lebanese character.

JEHL: I want to turn in just a moment to questions from the audience, but I did want to ask Soraya about the title, the wonderful title, "Tomorrow We Will See" -- in Arabic, (says title in Arabic) -- which is -- whose ambivalence, its very ambivalence, I think, gets at the contradictions that Sibley was just describing. I asked you before how you would punctuate that phrase. I mean, would it be "tomorrow we will see" with an exclamation point, or something else? And it's different, at different times and in different voices, isn't it?

UMEWAKA: Yes. So "Tomorrow We Will See" is a very common expression in Arabic; (says expression in Arabic) is a very common expression. And I think that's mainly because of the lack of solid infrastructure and because of the regional political instability. But it's not necessarily a cultural trait.

I'll just give you an example. Back -- I don't know how long ago, but there used to be an expression called Korean time that existed because nobody in Korea would come on time. But after the economy developed, that expression is no longer used. Yes. But yeah, so I really wanted to explore how the political instability in the country affects the artworks of the artists.

JEHL: So I'd like to invite the members of the audience now to join in the discussion. There are a couple microphones being passed, so please do wait for the microphone, and speak directly into it. We'd like to ask you to stand, state your name and affiliation and, of course, keep questions and comments concise to allow as many people to speak as possible. Please, in the center.

Q: I'm Mitzi Wirtheim with the Naval Postgraduate School. What an amazing film. And I guess my question is, what's the distribution? How do I get everybody in the country to see it? I mean, we need to have many more films like this, and I think back on what it was like when we cared about doing -- sending our culture abroad and having other cultures brought in here. And when Bill Clinton got rid of that when he became president, it just -- I thought, what in God's name is going on? I mean, culture and art is the way that brings us all together.

So what's the distribution? (Chuckles.)

UMEWAKA: Thank you for your question.

So this film was shown a few days ago at the National Geographic All Roads Film Festival. And they have a traveling tour program. So they asked me whether I'd be interested. And I also have some distribution companies approaching me. But I ask you to be patient. (Laughter.) It'll go around the world and Middle East and Europe. And I'm pretty sure that you'll see it again soon. (Chuckles.) Thank you.

JEHL: Another question? Please, in the back.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. My name is Firas Maksad. I'm with the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. And I'm actually from Beirut. And the movie is a great snapshot of the city as I grew up knowing it. But we also hear a lot from our parents, from the older generation, of what Beirut used to be. And we read about that, but we also read about what Alexandria used to be, a cosmopolitan melting pot, about what Baghdad used to be. And then somehow, that went away. I'm interested in your take as whether that could be also happening in Beirut, and essentially, was Beirut in fact much more glorious that it is -- than it is today, like our parents say it was? Or is it sort of more their memories of its ancient glory? I mean, is Beirut still shining, or is it slowly fading away, I guess is what I wanted to get to.

UMEWAKA: I like to see it as still shining and being very bright. Of course, before the war, you wouldn't see the scarred buildings and all of that. But yeah, I mean, that's one of the reasons why I included the chapter "Memories." I did notice that a lot of people are quite nostalgic about the past, especially the older generation, but not so much the younger generation. And I remember, for example, the singer Hamid (sp), and I would ask him and say, what do you think of the expression "the Paris of the Middle East," like how it used to be the Paris of the Middle East. And he was like, oh, why can't it just be Beirut? (Laughs.) But --

TELHAMI: It was interesting, actually, about this old and new. I mean, when I -- when I first started watching the film -- and of course, you see the initial chaos of the city, and then you juxtapose, you know, some of the old -- magnificent old architecture with just new -- you know, structures that don't have all that much character. And I thought initially that's where we're headed in that.

But it turns out, actually, it wasn't like that, because the creative architects, particularly Bernard Khoury, but also Kharam (ph), who were -- who were essentially unbelievably innovative and cutting-edge -- and they're not recreating the past. They're moving forward. So there was this really kind of interesting -- it didn't end up being kind of juxtaposing the old and the new, even though the old is -- has its magnificent.

And I -- and I'm just wondering whether that was in some ways related to this issue of memory at all and whether that was -- that theme. Did you pick up on that theme when you were doing it, or was that something that -- I mean, the memory theme. Is it just a -- something that you tried to build around it or something that you just put in there?

UMEWAKA: I definitely try to build around it and -- because of the nostalgia that I noticed, I wanted to ask each artist what he thought about -- or how he compared the past to the present. But there are some people in the film who haven't experienced war, for example -- the Lebanese civil war, such as Hamid (sp) the singer. So he didn't experience war. But others lived it completely. Some escaped and came back. So each person has a very different experience and outlook on the civil war that lasted for 15 years, roughly 15 years.

JEHL: More questions, please.

UMEWAKA: Oh, yes, and my mother here is saying that I'm the product of the civil war because I -- she wouldn't have gone to Japan; she would have stayed in Lebanon, and I probably wouldn't be here. (Laughter.)

JEHL: More questions, please.

TELHAMI: May I say something about the -- what the lady said about can we see more of this, which I thought was something that I picked up as a theme that's worth thinking about, in part because I think, you know, those of us who follow the Middle East, and certainly Americans who follow the Middle East, have mostly watched the Middle East through the prisms of conflict and shooting. And over the past decade, it's the 9/11 prism and the demonstration prism.

And what we don't -- we sort of think that Arabs wake up every morning and say, I hate America -- (laughter) -- or Arabs wake up every morning and say, I'm going to go battle; who am I going to shoot next, or -- we know it's not like that, and I think most people do that. But there is this subconscious bombardment of images that we don't really see the way people live their lives enough. And what this does -- this is obviously not about, you know, whole of culture, but just a cut that you can relate to, whether it's a community of artists or architects or that -- it gives you a snapshot that we don't see enough of.

And I do wish that there was more of that in terms of conveying the Middle East with its complexity and the way people live it, not in the way of -- that we sort of have -- the level of high politics.

JEHL: Please.

QUESTIONER: My name's Teresa Barker (sp) and I'm excited to go to Lebanon in two weeks -- three weeks.

So I have just two thoughts. One, there is a great word in English that maybe no one knows because I just learned it myself, and it's called "macaronic," and it comes from the root "macaroni." And it is a legitimate English word, and it means to create sentences that have many languages in them. So Lebanese is a macaronic language, so -- and it's a great word because it sounds like "macaroni." (Laughter.)

So it's very cool. You have this macaronic language, and then you have Sarial Huzim (sp) saying: We don't think anyone had our experience; we think we are unique. No one has ever felt what we've felt.

But weirdly, people are speaking these multiple dialects, this globalization of their daily lives. So how do you see that contradiction? Do you think it's just idiosyncratic with him that he says we are -- you know, no one's ever had our experience? Or is there something in sort of the Lebanese history that people kind of bear this contradiction of being both global and totally unique?

UMEWAKA: I -- well, when Sari (sp) said that -- the architect -- I actually thought he was just joking. (Chuckles.) So I didn't really take him so seriously.

But --

QUESTIONER: He was being sarcastic --

UMEWAKA: Yes, sarcastic.

QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)


QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)

UMEWAKA: I think -- yeah, he was being sarcastic. Yeah. I'm not sure -- yeah, I'm not sure what -- what do you think? (Chuckles.)

TELHAMI: Yeah, I -- the way I saw it was, I thought he was joking and sarcastic. But --

UMEWAKA: Just joking. Yeah, he was just --

QUESTIONER: (Off mic) -- sarcastic -- (off mic) -- he was sarcastic -- making fun of other Lebanese who say, no one understands us, but I think his serious point was that he was saying, my fellow Lebanese don't see the universality of their experience. He said it in a sarcastic way, but he wasn't -- why would he even say it if he was -- if he didn't think there was this kernel of truth, right, because that's how sarcasm works, I think.

TELHAMI: You know, I agree with that. I mean, I think the way I saw it is, he was sarcastic, but to make that point particularly, which is that -- I mean, you know, that's why -- you asked me, you know, is there -- is it a Lebanese characteristic to think that they, you know -- of course it's not.


TELHAMI: I mean, that's -- and their experience and even the conflict and civil war and -- I mean, it isn't -- it isn't unique.

There are a lot of things that are unique about Lebanon, certainly in the Middle East, because of the extraordinary diversity of its people, even though it's a very small country. And that alone is an -- and I think that maybe is the reason why they all feel so Lebanese.


TELHAMI: I think there is something about that.

JEHL: Other questions?

I mean, so much of the talk, Shibley and Soraya, about the past was about civil war, but of course the problems that Lebanon has experienced in the last 15 or 17 years have been different. Just as there was a moment of renaissance in the mid-90s came the '96 war; again, in 2006, the same thing. And now, as the war in Syria begins to spill across the borders, there's the sense that what's been accomplished, that the rebirth is under threat. That whole awful, tragic cycle of Lebanon seems to be playing out again.

When you made this film, the memories of 2006 were relatively fresh. Is there a sense of futility, in some ways?

UMEWAKA: Yeah, I mean, people are always wary, and they don't know what exactly will happen the next day and therefore the phrase "Tomorrow We'll See." And a lot of people find it hard to with that uncertainty and therefore leave, but a lot of people are choosing to come back, and a lot of people are choosing to stay to rebuild Lebanon. And that's one of the main reasons I chose those artists, because they didn't leave and they chose to stay and to continue to create and to continue to persevere.

JEHL: And Shibley, this tragic cycle -- do you see hope that Lebanon can break out of it in some way?

TELHAMI: Well, there are two things that are going on that are really complicating for Lebanon. One is the extraordinary intervention by outside forces, that Lebanon isn't just the arena of competition among different sects; it is arena of competition for strategically interested parties on a scale that a small country rarely can take.

Start off with the fact that you have a half-million Palestinian refugees who would never integrate into a country that -- I don't know, maybe 6 million people. So you're talking about, you know -- you know, a huge percentage of the population that is still unsettled and unsettling, that's tied to a solution that has to be regional.

You have the Israel-Hezbollah issue, that is tied to Iran in some ways, that can flare up at any time. If you had to ask me what is the prospect that Israel and Hezbollah will be at war in the next five years, I will say better than 50-50. Well, if you start with that and you start with the fact the Israelis are saying, next war isn't between us and Hezbollah; it's between us and Lebanon because Hezbollah is the government of Lebanon, essentially -- they're not, but they're obviously the power brokers right now -- that they would be -- so you can -- you can see why they can't totally --

And then, of course, the Syria issue, which -- with all the bloodshed and the pain and the connectedness between Lebanon and Syria and what -- and how it might come into play. So, you know, those -- just look at those two alone, and you can see how obviously external parties will exploit the sectarian differences.

There have been a polarization politically in Lebanon, and we know how it roughly, you know, has taken shape -- different from the breakdown of the civil war. So the fascinating story today is that actually, the coalitions and the -- and the intense, you know, confrontations are not between the, you know, mostly Christian and mostly Sunni Muslims. Today you have essentially mostly Shia with some Christian minority, and mostly Sunni with more Christian minority. So it's very -- and the Druze somewhere in between -- so it's a very different coalition. It's not even the civil war coalition, which, again, tells you about the fact that you can't divorce even domestic politics in Lebanon from the external factors. And that's why I think Lebanese may blame the outside, because frankly, it's a small country with very poor resources. And with that kind of intervention over a sustained period of time, it doesn't appear to be in their hand. You know, the future isn't -- certainly not entirely in their hand.

JEHL: Question. Please, in the front?

QUESTIONER: Thanks. David Apgar. I can't help thinking that despite the uniqueness of this -- sectarians wars, a lot of the concerns of the artists in the film were more capital city concerns than Lebanese concerns, that the -- that the -- their, you know, recurring focus on identity, and the question, why can't our people in this country just get along, were questions that you would also hear from cities that haven't been recently war-torn -- from Delhi, from New York or from Sao Paulo. So I wonder whether this film would have been anything like what we saw if you had shot it everywhere in Lebanon except Beirut.

UMEWAKA: Yes, Beirut is quite unique. And if you travel to the south or the north, it's a lot more impoverished. So that definitely affects, you know, whether you can afford to become an artist in the first place. But there was one painter from Byblos, which is north, and -- but he came from a very humble background.

So your question is whether the film would have been different if it was outside of Beirut and -- like, in terms of --

QUESTIONER: Mmm hmm. (Affirmative.) I'm -- what I'm almost asking is, is your film really maybe capturing a theme of conflict in the world right now where civil wars and sectarian wars are seen from capital cities or large cities as things that are done to them from the rural and less densely populated and sometimes suffering parts of their country -- wars start outside cities? Is that what we're seeing?

UMEWAKA: Well, I liked how your question started, when you -- when you mentioned how saw a lot of universal messages in the film.

And I think, you know, it's natural for all of us to question identity and, you know, question how much -- like, how conflict affects us. I come from -- like, I've lived most of my life in Japan, where it's quite peaceful. So when I -- when I went to Lebanon, I really noticed the stark change, where people are somewhat on the edge always. And I think it doesn't really matter whether you're in Beirut or the north or south. I think it's even more tense sometimes in the north or the south, where you're along the borders, like in Japan -- Japan's an island, but in Lebanon, you have to consider your neighboring countries. And that -- like right now it's quite tense along the borders, but in Beirut, it doesn't feel as tense, I'm guessing.

JEHL: So I think we have time for just one more question. And before I take it, I want to remind everyone that the meeting has been on the record.

I saw a question here in the center, I think, right? One more question? Please, there's one in the back there. Yeah. Here you are. Please.

QUESTIONER: So my question is this: You have a Lebanese mother. Your father's Japanese. So you have a Japanese perspective also in writing this film. My question is do you think, because of the Japanese perspective that you have, it's a little different, or if you didn't -- if you were just a Lebanese mother, Lebanese father, does that give a different perspective or slant?

UMEWAKA: Yes -- (inaudible) --

QUESTIONER: And if it does, share that with us, because I'd like to hear it.

UMEWAKA: So Peter (sp) and Vivian (sp), you're so -- (chuckles) -- partly Japanese -- cousins. (Chuckles.) And yes, well -- yeah, it does -- I'm sure it does -- it would have been a completely different film if I was a complete insider. But because I've lived in Japan for so long, I think people find it very hard to place me and categorize me. But as you notice in the film, a lot of people assume that I'm a Filipina. So -- (laughter) -- yeah. Right. But yeah, it does -- I think I can ask somewhat more naive questions and get away with it. (Laughter.)

JEHL: Well, thank you very much. And let's all congratulate Soraya again. (Applause.) (Inaudible.)

UMEWAKA: Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

JEHL: Congratulations to you.

UMEWAKA: Thank you for the foreign council -- (inaudible).

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