Tuesday 19 April 2011

An English girl in Algiers....Alternate ending

A year later, in Regents Park Mosque, Steph and I both covered, sit and wait anxiously in the Imam’s office, she surprised me the night before with the news that she has been studying Islam since we came back from Algeria and has taken the decision to revert to Islam. It took an English girl to get me into a mosque.

The reason for my presence apparently is that I helped show her a different side of Islam, a more moderate approach to practicing Islam, whereby you can be a believer and practice moderately and judiciously. She was drawn to the peaceful side of Islam and decided to look into it.

Imam greets us, takes a seat behind his desk, questions her motives and knowledge, apparently he had previously advised her to study Islam and its history for a year before she makes this decision, he seemed satisfied with her knowledge. I had no idea, I was shocked and embarrassed, Steph had amassed more knowledge on Islam than I ever did in all the years of being a Muslim (31 at the time), yet I would defend my knowledge so blazingly against any other Muslim who dared debate me, notably non-Arabs, as though Islam belonged to us Arabs only and nobody but the Arabs.  Reasoning behind it is that the fact that I read Arabic I can understand the Quran when I read it and can understand the message conveyed whereas anyone who cannot read Arabic, their knowledge was tainted with their clerics distorted images and meanings were lost in translation. I have since come to revise my slightly stubborn reasoning.

Steph’s conversion ceremony takes place, I sign the certificate as her whiteness and we proceed upstairs to the ladies prayer hall, the lady keeper of the mosque welcomes us in, and shows us around, she offers us some paper to dry our arms and faces after the ablutions, curious onlookers, some ask us if we were newly reverts and congratulate Steph when I announce that she had just reverted today.

We enter the praying room, floors lined with red carpets, book shelves filled with books and Qurans stand against the back walls, some old women sitting in their chairs praying, some holding their prayer beads and whispering prayers, all smile at us politely, it feels very friendly and quite diverse, I can hear so many accents, middle east, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, English and me the Algerian.
We go to the front row, pick a spot on the prayer mats facing the carved wood wall, and get a glimpse of the mosque and the men’s prayer hall, lined with lush red carpets, a vast dome decorated with mosaics and a beautiful crystal chandelier garlands the centre of its ceiling. We look at some of the men praying and getting in line, forming solid rows as the imam clears his throat and tabs his microphone to check the sound

We pray Maghrib (sunset) prayer, three bows and three prostrates, a girl from the row behind me tabs me on the shoulder to instruct to uncross my feet as it was not sunna (1) and the women to my right without notice starts fixing my head scarf, apparently it was not done properly presumably because my earrings were showing, “breath, breath and don’t respond we’re in a mosque” whispers Steph as she makes a muffled laughing noise, knowing how I would react as the original “Muslim” girl with all the knowledge, I smile at the lady on my right and say thank you out of sheer respect because she was older and as you know Algerians are plagued with this respect your elder thing; then turn around to the girl behind me and unleash a look of death to this 14 year old preacher, I mutter a very obviously sarcastic “thanks” and hold myself back “we’re in a mosque for god’s sake Dz-chick calm down” as I talk to myself  astakhfir allah (2) and leave the mosque swearing not to come back “this is why women are supposed to pray at home, you can’t even get a moment alone with your thoughts without some know-it-all- new born Muslim preacher coming to show you how to raise your hands the proper way or how to cross your feet when prostrating”
I leave disappointed, I let them ruin my visit to the mosque and feel like swearing out loud, but I restrain myself for the sake of Steph and God of course. Steph thanks me for the experience, sarcastically I am sure.

We decide to celebrate with ....coffees. Feeling under the shock still and in need of something stronger than coffee, but cannot confess this to the newly Muslim girl, we stay alcohol-free for about 5 months before we fall off the wagon and have a glass of wine. Oooops

3 years later, Steph remains single and looking for her perfect man, a Muslim man nonetheless, still living in London; she makes her pilgrimage visits to Algiers every year.
She feels a strong connection to the country and the city where she discovered Islam and the Algerian culture she learnt to love so much, it is her adopted home; she hopes to meet an Algerian man who is moderately Muslim like her and live happily ever after or until one of them gets bored, cheats or decides to leave.

She is quintessentially the English girl in Algiers, albeit just another single girl in London...
(1) Sunna - the way of the prophet Mohamed (SAAW)
(2) forgive me God

An English girl in Algiers....Final Part

Breakfast table is set in the kitchen, fresh thermos of coffee, hot milk and croissants, aromas of my childhood, we eat our breakfast, and get ready to go to the airport, my sister precedes us to the car, waits downstairs, presumably to “heat up” the engine, “I thought we didn’t need to do that with new cars?”, my sister clearly irritated “it’s a bloody diesel engine” feeling irritated, she threatens to leave us here and drive away, so I say ok ok, rolling my eyes, “let's all wait in the car while you heat up the engine”

We set off for the airport, stopping in Bordj el kiffan (1) to say hello to my grandmother (Mani), who was very pleased to see us and greets us with four insistent kisses, two on each cheek, she invites us to sit and drink some lemonade, she talks to Steph nonchalantly oblivious to the fact that Steph is English, who in turn nods and smiles as I answer every question for her.
As I sit there looking at her, I realise what a beautiful young lady my grandmother must have been, olive green eyes, henna died red hair and beautiful soft skin.
“did you bring me la krime” she asks, I smile and hand her a gift bag containing the anti-aging crèmes we all get for her as a new tradition in the family, “there is also a pair of lacy underwear in there for you” she smiles and says kathar khirek(2), Steph is loving the fact that my grandmother seeks eternal youth with anti-aging cremes and lacy underwear at the tender age of 78. That’s how we love our Mani.

We have to say goodbye, so as a thank you, Mani sprays Steph and I with some perfume, and thankfully it wasn’t some local production with a pungent nauseous smell. It was Coco Chanel, I laugh lovingly at this traditional encounter, this old Algerian tradition of spraying ones guests with perfume, in the old days hosts would use a dab of orange blossom water that every household would preserve in a silver container that has an oval body and a thin nozzle to drip the liquid into their palms and dab it on the guests necks or dress, some would use the liquid to aromatise their beverages mainly black coffee and tea.
With that I give Mani four kisses, Steph follows suit;
“Call me sometimes la3ziza (3)” I promise to call and with a sunken heart I leave my lonely grandmother and we continue our way to the airport.

We land at Heathrow; look at each other, and without uttering a word, smile and stretch our bodies by raising our arms up to the sky, making a sound that emobobied satisfaction and making ourselves feel at home, MY second home.
It was cold and raining, it dampens our spirits immediately to find ourselves alone again, but we fight the holiday blues, dig out the cakes my mum packed for us and enjoy them with a café au lait, pretending we were still at my parents in Algiers, the pangs of nostalgia were ever-present, the only way to snap out of holiday blues is to make the return seem superior, so as a treat to ourselves and to mark our triamphant return we go for dim-sum followed by cinema (not very extravagant)

A very telling choice, Steph and I later discussed our choices as subconsciously comparative, by choosing to have dim-sum and watch a movie (in English, with no subtitles or doubled in French with lips moving not according to the original text) is a way of acknowledging what we love about London and what we missed out on in Algiers, for me perhaps as a pathetic excuse to confirm that my decision to come back to London is the right one and to silence that voice in my head that makes me want to stay behind in Algiers every time I visit, so I shush the voice “you see... you couldn’t do this in Algiers, and you would miss London so much"

Recognising that Steph was not the only English girl in Algiers, isn’t there a bit of Englishness in all of us
(1)  AKA Ford de l’eau – a district of Algiers that is on the sea and also near the airport
(2)   A prayer “may god multiply your wealth“used as a thank you
(3)   Dearest

Wednesday 13 April 2011

An English girl in Algiers ....PART II

Last day in Algiers before we head back north to our beloved island;

My parents house is situated within a 2 mile radius of three mosques, the muezzin calls for Fajr (dawn) prayer at around 5.20am, I lay in my bed staring at the fluttering shapes on the ceiling reflected by street lights and the faint moon light filtering through the scattered clouds, "Steph, are you awake?” she was also staring into space listening to the sound of the muezzin's enchanting voice and the melody of this call to prayer, 30 seconds later a sound of another muezzin starts and then the third, we sit up in shock, it feels like an ancient Chinese torture method, the sounds flooded the space and assaulted our senses with what has become nothing short of noise pollution. Equally annoyed and frustrated, we get up and follow the smell of coffee to the kitchen where my parents sat and enjoyed their freshly made brew whilst chatting after their prayers; we say Bonjour and I quickly start complaining about the noise, Steph couldn’t dream of uttering a word or commenting on the situation for fear of making a faux pas, but I tell her its normaaal to comment and question, nobody was going to defend the Tappage noturne we just witnessed, so my dad explains that when mosques are so close by they should agree on who would do the first call to prayer, that three unsynchronised calls to pray overlapping each other is not an inviting sound or a motivating one to leave bed at 5.20am,
Steph appears to be astounded to hear my father, a presumably devout Muslim, explain this, she expected him to defend the sacred call blindly and irrationally and take offence at our comments (hers and mine), so she sips her café au lait, sits back on her chair, seemingly relaxed and satisfied.

My mum looks at me and says; “don’t you want to try, now that you’re awake”, I look up from my coffee mug, look at my mum and then look at Steph, whose head was going between mum and me, as though she was watching a tennis match. I ponder the thought for a minute and head to the bathroom without saying a word, Steph follows behind and I explain that I was going to wash for prayer, she stands there shell shocked and without questioning then says: “Let’s have a go then”.

You wash your hands three times, your month three times, et cetera, we finish our ablutions, dry ourselves and head to the bedroom, I deploy Steph to borrow prayer mats from mum as I cannot look her in the eyes because of a silly pride not to give her the impression she convinced me of doing anything, I explain briefly to Steph what to do, and to follow my lead, so we cover up and raise our hands to the air, ALLHU AKBAR (1), we pray two ruk3at (bows) and finish Fajr prayer, I glance to my left to see Steph smiling, she gets up and says let’s do more, as a matter-of-fact there is more I say, we have to do the Soubh (morning) prayer, so we start again, two bows and two prostrations and we’re done, now raise your hands to the sky and ask Allah. Ask him what? Whatever the hell you want, She, smiling joyfully exclaims: SCORE.

What do you want to do today? She wants to visit every famous mosque in the Capital, I look at her in astonishment and decide it was not a bad idea, Algiers boasts some of the most beautiful mosques in North Africa and nobody takes a slight interest in these amazing landmarks, should make for an interesting photo shot. My sister drives us around priding herself in her Schumacher-like skills, she doesn’t pass the opportunity to comment that it is like we’ve come to Algeria on a religious holiday. Steph remarks: so cynicism runs in the family I take it??

We park the car in downtown Algiers and start walking through the busy streets of the capital, it’s a sunny day as usual, sky is a clear blue, accentuates the blue painted balconies and windows on all the white buildings that distinguish Alger la blanche,

we stop many times to take pictures, but sure enough, we get the odd policeman waving us away or vigorously gesticulating for us to stop taking pictures, Steph looks at me and say “what the hell is he saying?” So I, true to my Algerian short temper, start screaming bladi bladi, tssalni?(2) he looks at me stunned and then throws his hand in the air in defeat, Steph laughs and follows with a loud Normaaal

We visit the Great mosque of Algiers or Djama’a al-Kebir near the Algiers harbour, it was prayer time, we were not allowed in, so we circle the beautiful edifice and discover it was built in 1097, take a few snaps then we get bored so we take a walk through the bustling street market heading to beb El Oued, past Dar Aziza bent el bay(3) a grandiose palace of Moorish architecture, built for Aziza daughter of the bay of Algiers during the Ottoman rule, not maintained to the best level, and is currently the office of the National Archaeology Agency, the typically self-important but equally friendly guard announces that it wasn’t open to the public, but we’re not the public I say, we’re journalists with the BBC, she’s English, he believes us and lets us in as far as the courtyard, from what we could see, it was dilapidated and shamefully dusty and worn, so we say merci and take our disappointed souls across the road to the beautiful Ketchoua mosque located at the foot of the Casbah, this, we discover it was built in 1612 but in 1845 during the French occupation it became the Cathedral of St Philippe until 1962(independence) when it was refurbished to become one of Algiers most prominent mosques, we cover our heads and climb the flight of stairs to enter the mosque, old men line the steps, presumably residents of la Casbah, we take a minute and sit with them, take in the atmosphere and chat about politics and religion, some are wearing a changais(4) which I recognise from when I was a kid, a symbolic outfit for Wled Alger (true sons of Algiers), and almost all wearing a arakiya(5), at the bottom of the stair, a few plastic baskets filled with bread baguettes, women in Hijabs stop to buy some on their way home, nobody paid attention to us, Steph is astonished that no one made her feel like a foreigner or unwelcome despite her ginger hair, I explain that they probably just assumed she was kabyle.

It was past midday prayers so the keeper of the mosque allows us in, we walk in sheepishly, our heads already tilted backwards admiring the edifice, breathtaking architecture, intertwining alcoves and arches, beautiful red carpets line the floor, an opulent chandelier ornates the ceiling, and a feeling of peace overwhelms us, Steph squats on the floor and prostrates, I stand there looking at her in disbelief and then realise she was having a moment with God, she stayed in that position for a few minutes, I join her on the floor, she rises with a smile, I ask if she was ok, she says she feels at peace, so I propose we pray tahiyat al masjid which is a prayer to salute the mosque, she agrees and adds: is this not the house of God after all.

So we raise our hands to the sky and pray in unison. We only stay for a few minutes; we thank the mosque keeper and leave feeling exhilarated.

It was past three o’clock in the afternoon, hungry and grumpy, we head back towards the harbour, stop for lunch at a café near Kitani in bab el oued, overlooking the sea, we’re served the plat du jour, roast chicken with chips, an hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of Hamoud boualem(6), Steph is overwhelmed and exhausted at the same time, but her eyes are wide open like an exited little girl, she photographs everything she sees, takes a picture of the young waiter who is working here during the school holidays, his name is Omar, she tips him a generous 100 dza (aprx 1gbp), he shyly declines it, Steph flustered, doesn’t understand why he would reject her tip, so I explain that Algerians don’t expect tips and are not used to that, tipping just does not have a strong presence in our culture, but it is changing, so she copies me and pops it in his apron pocket, we say goodbye and leave.

Back at home, last supper with the family before heading back to London the next day, my mum makes my favourite meal, a tagine of chicken with green peas, I was always a grateful child my mum confesses, I don’t hide my pleasure when I eat, hummm and more hummm, my sister looks up at me from her plate, in disgust and says: bal3i (7)
To be continued...
(1) God is Great = is proclaimed during the prayer at least 5 times
(2) bladi = my country, Tssalni = I do what I like.
(3) House of Aziza daughter of the bay
(4) Changai suit, is a working men’s blue suit that became a symbol of true Algerois
(5) arakiya: Islamic skullcaps worn mostly to mosque.
(6) Hamoud Boualem: Local award wining lemonade – can also be found in London
(7) shut up

Monday 11 April 2011

An English girl in Algiers…

Is that Algerian she’s speaking? Steph enquires about the recording in Arabic on the British Airways flight to Algiers, no its Arabic in a Kuwaiti accent bizarrely, is that different? No I guess not, it’s like listening to a voice recording done of a Scottish lady, you wonder why they chose a Scottish accent.

After about 30 minutes of flight time, food and beverages are served, an adapted lazy version of a halal meal for these passengers who don’t eat pork, a cold cheese and tomato sandwich.
Two gentlemen to our right dig out a Tesco’s bag, they packed sandwiches and cakes, I look on curiously, I had to say something and I on my way to the bathroom, I take the opportunity to ask them with a friendly smile “where did you get that then?” they inform me that when one flies BA, one has to take precautions, and that they preferred Air Algerie where they'd be served a proper hot meal, I enquire politely if the flight time was longer? They look at me in confusion as to the purpose of my question. I smile and walk away.

Aircraft lands in Algiers, sky is hazy neither fully covered, nor blue, ambiguous weather; there is surprise for you, reflects the local socio-political system I thought, temperature mild and humidity high, my skin feels sticky, my skin cells are screaming for water, a shower is in order, I signal to my sister who's came to pick us up that we'd better get home quick before Steph starts to strip and cause a stir.

The drive from the airport to my parents’ house should take about half an hour, but the usual horrendous traffic caused by a police check in the middle of the motorway means we might as well dig out the BA sandwiches now, to my surprise Steph had packed them away in her bag! I want to ask her why but decide against it, I was worried I would get a disconcerting response and thought whatever assumption she had made, it was probably best to let her review it herself.

Traffic almost stationery on the motorway, some kids skate past us on their rollerblades, whilst I was getting over this first chock, comes the second, another kid swerves past us in his VTT with no helmet naturally,  when I realise we might be in for the long haul, I give up complaining and commenting, slouch in my seat and hold on to the door handle whilst my sister drives us home, Schumacher style, breaking every traffic code there is, if she knows any, when I scream in fear she sniggers “Normaaaaaal”
Steph and I exchange horrified looks but I feel protective of my home country, I have this overwhelming desire to make it look PERFECT and want Steph to have a great time, but realising this was an impossible task I relax, smile at Steph and say Normaaaaaaal

Arriving home, my mother had a feast prepared for us and to her delight, my guest declares she’s ravenous to which she (my mother) replies in French as though Steph would understand anything “ah you should have flown Air Couscous, they give you a proper hot meal”
“Ah we’re having couscous?” Steph shrieks, she clearly picked up the word couscous.

I ignore her and start ranting; It’s 2h40 minutes flight time maximum, we are not going to die, “yes but you get more luggage allowance too” she retorted. I don’t bother translating this to my guest. But I do however explain that with the inevitable flight delays with Air Algerie, the hot meal is a write off.
A hot meal is needed after 4 hours minimum delay, they know what they’re doing those Air couscous people.

Mother announces there’s a cousins wedding over the weekend, and we are invited, invited? Does it matter how many members of the family are invited?  apparently not b
ecause people usually bring their friends and neighbours too, free food, a good dance and you might get the chance to be spotted by a grandmother shopping for a bride for her favourite grandson.

Not wanting to disappoint my mother, I reluctantly agree as long as Steph comes too, my mum is over the moon and suggests I give my friend a lesson in weddings attires so that my she doesn’t get a cultural shock. Mum – it’s too late for that.

We go to the local hairdresser; her salon is an extension of her house, a converted garage, garden chairs for us to sit on and an old sink in the corner, my friend is loving it, she’s taking pictures of corners and getting into strange positions trying to get an arty shot, don’t you dare point that thing at me is all I have to say.
The hairdresser washes our hair with a “shampoing Professionel”, it smelt of strawberries and looked radioactive, she moves on to straighten and style our hair, she did mine so straight I could pass for a Chinese from behind, my friend had curls put in. it was not pain free.

The wedding is in a couple of hours, so we decide we needed a drink, we drive to the Sheraton Hotel, one of the few places you can get a drink without getting judged or stared at, and these little liberties don’t come cheap, I suggest we opt for a liquor which smell wont linger on for hours and I would be found out by the meddlesome old women “invited” to the wedding. I sense that Steph is starting to understand the ramifications.

I address my mum over the blaring music being played “I need to make a phone call” a lady sitting at the table behind ours, who was clearly eavesdropping offers her phone, I smile politely and say “merci” so she plunges her hand into her generously bulging bust and produces a sweaty mobile phone, I hesitate for a bit but I could feel my mother staring at me with trepidation expecting me to embarrass her, Steph giving me an evil laugh and whispering as if anybody can understand her if overheard her: "dude, don't do it " and the phone lady trying to read my face, so I take the phone with clenched jaws in an attempt at hiding my queasiness, my mind is racing, how can I talk on this phone without having to put it near my face, I don’t even have a kitman(3) as the lady called it, she watches me, she is afraid I’d dial a +44 number, I brave her gaze, take my chances and wipe the handset with a tissue! She didn’t even flinch and gave me a faint smile, to her is was normaaaaal

Dinner was served, more couscous, Steph is loving it, she sits down with the old ladies and talks to them in broken French and English and they seem to understand each other, some touch her blond locks, some mutter lahibarak and some are showing her pictures of their sons on their presumably sweaty mobile phones. I sit there smiling and nodding, glancing at my watch, but all the same pleased that my guest was able to experience a “traditional” Algerian wedding.

“Mum, I warn you now, we came to the wedding, so don’t expect our company tonight we’re going out” isn’t it Normaaaal? She declares that it was not.

So we stay in with the family, more food followed by even more food, tizanne instead of coffee, Steph wonders why we’re not drinking mint tea instead of coffee or tizanne, I get tired of her questions so I deploy my sister to explain that it’s not as depicted in the movies, we don’t all wear jellabas and headscarves and walk behind our men cradling babies on canvas pouches, though if she wanted to see that, we can drive her to some village so she can take pictures like a tourist in a zoo and let her experience some bullshit white man guilt that is just a poor excuse for feeling superior.

I explain to Steph that, nevertheless, it is always refreshing to see how people can keep such a primal and basic way of life and be absolutely content as they are in these same villages, whereas we in the metropolis, need a big house, a car, many battery operated devices, a man, a good job, girlfriends, several memberships to a gym, spa, Jazz club and cinema, a local café, several pairs of shoes, overflowing and slightly ostentatious wardrobes (most with tags still attached), a therapist and chronic depression, a weight problem, 2 international airports at hand yet remain dissatisfied. What gives!

Steph winks at me with a knowing smile and says: Normaaaaal

To be continued….

(3) Kit-main-libre – hands free

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Non-date with Tarek

Do you remember the Algerian guy I met on the plane when I last flew to Algeria? Let’s just call him Tarek for the sake of anonymity.

After several exasperatingly pointless texts, to which I was always compelled to respond by sheer civility than anything else, Tarek works up the courage to actually set a date, I just go long with it, I always send a half heartedly “sure” or “why not”.
His last text read “how about a drink early evening on Sunday” I thought this was an easy option which should he cancel on me last minute I wouldn’t care as much as if it was a Saturday night date cancellation. So I agree with a derisory “OK” but true to form the date never happened.

Date scheduled loosely for early evening Sunday, no time, no place mentioned. He texts me on Saturday wishing me a great weekend! Read between the lines..I shan't be seeing you!

Why did he feel the need to text me in the first place, I could tell it was forced, he had obviously changed his mind about me when he came over to meet me (casually with friends), he was drunk and spraying me with every word,  I too ordered a beverage mostly because I enjoy it but also because manifestly I wanted to sabotage the “date” because as you know, I am a women and drinking shows the low values and loose morals I hold and a clear sign that I am not bent familia(1) whereas he is a man and drinking couldn't possibly affect his already low morals as he remains indisputably above me.

Needless to say he never asked me out again, which is a shame as a date with him would have given me plenty of material for the blog.

The saga continues however as I received another text over the weekend, asking if I had forgotten about him, baffling stuff really, I responded “Hi Tarek, yes I am fine thx, hope you’re good” he responded “wow, an answer! I am so happy you’re doing well darling, lets talk soon”

Seriousely? Seriousely? Talk soon? Darling? Why bother?

What I deduct from this behaviour is that this guy is not interested and is clearly trying to keep me on the back burner, however, I am not interested either to be on his front or back burner, and have made it quite clear but he insists on keeping in touch through pathetic efforts and awkward, spelling mistake-riddled texts,

It is usually the case for a lot of men, either afraid to let the women down harshly so they attempt it gently but never quite get the hang of it, if you’re not into me, you’re not into me, I can live with it, just don’t waste my time with theses mixed messages and when you grow a pair and realise what you want, call me instead of assaulting me with your badly grammared texts.

Stay tuned for more non-dates stories…even though I am never dating again.

(1) Literally means "dautghter of a good family" which embodies the girl with high morals, good family values and God knows what other attributes she has and I hasn't.

Friday 1 April 2011


I am very pleased to inform all my readers and friends that I have finally met someone, he is wonderful and I am happy.

Even though, I am bound to wear flat shoes for the rest of my life, due to his hight, he barely clears my nipples, chances are we’d probably have very ugly children too as he isn’t very lucky in the looks department either, we will probably just keep a cat and call it a day.

We met at a work function, this umpa-lumpa tripped, fell over and landed face first, on my shoe, so I said “go on lick it” he laughed and the rest was history.

I have decided not to tell him about the blog as it is my space and I don’t want my writing to be affected by his reading it.

I have also lost weight and now a healthy skinny size 8, that's 36 for you people who are not from the Island.
And in the spirit of revelations, I have decided to share some more with you; My name is Maya my bonus for 2010 was over your annual salaries, I have a hamster pet called Gollum, I hate politics and judgmental people, I am the complete opposite to my alter-ego dz-chick, I am taciturn, moody, but have a big heart.

If you believed any of the above – you are a true April fool ;)

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