NMIT Working Papers

Working Papers on New Media & Information Technology in the Middle East

Negotiating Nationhood on the Net: The Case of the Turcomans and Assyrians of Iraq

Posted by meaningfulconnections on September 6, 2008

Hala Fattah, Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, Amman.
Prepared for Going Native on the Net: Indigenous Cyberactivism and Virtual Diasporas over the World Wide Web, edited by Kyra Landzelius (forthcoming from Routledge) … November 2001 .

A central argument that has swirled around the contours of the Iraqi nation from its inception in the 1920s has migrated to the Internet. The argument pits the legitimacy of Iraq as a nation-state against that of a whole host of different “national” communities settled within the modern state. The claim has been made that Iraq has never cohered into a nation because successive governments have prevented the assimilation and integration of “the multiple histories of Iraqis” into “a single narrative of state power”.1 The argument is more a Western construct than an indigenous formulation. State-centered ideology is not monolithic and has its ebbs and flows: in certain periods (such as under the monarchy), Iraqis did indeed forge solid ties of marriage, commercial partnerships, and social relationships across ethnic and sectarian lines.2 Moreover, Iraqi nationalism appeals to certain groups more than others. Various observers have noted that, over the last eighty years, some of the Kurds and some of the Shi’a have been somewhat more ambivalent about their Iraqi identity than others in the country. Recently, different ways in which social groups both inside and outside of Iraq are currently reformulating their ties to Iraq and notions of “Iraq” have appeared on the Internet at the same time that the country passes through one of the severest tests in its history.

Re-affiliation or re-identification with Iraq is apparent on the World Wide Web, where a significant renegotiating of history, ethnicity and religion is visibly gathering momentum on dozens of “Iraqi” sites. There, particularist interpretations of history, culture and politics intersect with projections of national and “pre-national”groups, all of which have their own websites. This article is concerned with the sites of two important social groupings in Iraq, the Turcomans and Assyrians. One of the meta-issues in the debate is how best to make use of a particular community’s history in the battle to re-envision a collectivity’s “place” on the national agenda, even as that agenda is constantly shifting due to forces outside of the country’s control. Perhaps most interesting is the way that these communities seek to relinquish their formal ties with Iraq the state as presently constituted, while at the same time attempting to reinsinuate themselves in the ongoing dialogue to remake the Iraqi nation of the future.

Interpretations of the past, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities makes clear,[3] may also be used to justify a minority group’s vision of inclusion/exclusion in a reformulated Iraqi state. Presuming that “identity and community are to a significant degree constructed and subject to invention and reimagination,”[4] I am interested in finding out how self-identified Turcomans and Assyrians are attempting to overcome political marginalization by means of the rational representation of their past and future. Dirk Hoerder points that nations or cultural groups “assert special group rights against other groups which define themselves as nations, [but] the democratic state…is theorized as neutral and thus as treating each and every person as equal, regardless of culture, ethnicity, religion, color of skin, gender, class or position in the life cycle.”[5] How then are the Turcomans and Assyrians actively reshaping their national identities by manipulating history, ethnicity and information? And how are they confronting the reality of an undemocratic state?

Finally, since the Internet is not available to everyone, it is important to ask where Iraqi sites are located in the “real” world. With the exception of several Kurdish sites operating from the “safe haven” of northern Iraq, and some Iraqi government sites relayed through Jordanian servers, the majority of cyber groups online emerge in the greater Iraqi diaspora. A large proportion of these are situated in north America and represent exiles, refugees and political dissidents whose broader agendas include social justice, political freedom, greater cultural rights and more representative government. The Turcoman and Assyrian web sites reviewed in this article are most definitely the expression of the Iraqi diaspora; none that I have looked at are situated in Iraq proper or Iraqi Kurdistan.

Ethnicity and Sectarian Affiliation in Iraqi Sites on the Web.

Among the more sophisticated sites on Iraq on the Internet are several that refuse to openly call themselves Iraqi. Because of their tortuous relations with the Iraqi state, particularly the Baath regime of the last thirty-two years, as well as a direct consequence of the political fallout from the Gulf war, most Assyrian web sites marginalize their national connections to Iraq, and promote a quasi-separatist agenda that bypasses the state, but accentuate the long cultural and historic roots of the community in the region. On the other hand, most Turcoman sites are adamant about their Iraqi-ness, but equally ambivalent about their connections to the Iraqi state. While the web has allowed both communities infinite freedom to actualize their national potential (if only in the virtual world), certain constraints inhibit both communities’ attempts at further self-actualization online. Because Iraq still harbors a sizeable Turcoman and Assyrian population caught between government strategies and US designs, a clear realization seems to prevail among activists on the web that neither community is entirely free to redesign its national agenda; certain limitations most definitely take over when co-religionists or co-ethnics are leading precarious lives in the home country. Coupled with a genuine feeling that Iraq is indeed one of the national homes of both Turcomans and Assyrians, this residual connection to an idea of Iraq inevitably colors the interpretation of their community’s history, and paradoxically reinforces their Iraqi identity in the process.

Of the many “northern” Iraqi communities that have contributed their share to the makeup of the country, two of the most significant in size, cultural involvement  and socio-political longevity are the Turcomans and Assyrians. Ties of cooperation, as well as a history of conflict may well intrude on their associations with each other, and yet there is a certain symmetry in viewing these two communities as a unity. One of the most interesting facets that characterizes these groups is their transnational reach coupled with their local focus. For instance, the wider Turcoman “nation” spreads out from Iraq into Syria, Azerbayjan and Turkey, while Assyrians are to be found in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran and Lebanon. Both communities are the self-proclaimed heirs of two remarkably important civilizations that left their imprint on the region for centuries to come, of which their descendants are justifiably proud. On the other hand, there is a specificity to the Turcoman and Assyrian experience in Iraq that is directly related to their long affinity with the country. This is why any analysis of the negotiation strategies of these communities with the Iraqi state entails a reexamination of the way transregionalism affects particularist identity in each specific case. [6]

Turkomans in Cyberspace.

Most Turcoman (or Turkmen) sites are in the Turkish language, whether hosted by Iraqi, Syrian, Azeri or Turkish groups on the net (although a few have Arabic and English sections as well). With respect to Iraqi Turcomans, it is clear that the connection with Turkey shapes the community’s historical view of the world, and nowhere more so than on the web. Virtually all the Turcoman sites I surveyed dated the community’s origin to the ninth century AD when one of the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad recruited Turkish soldiers to staff his army. Eventually these same troops became the force behind the throne, and even overthrew one Caliph and replaced him with another. The web site of the Turkmen Peoples’ Party (www.angelfire.com/tn/halk/), one of the Iraqi Turcoman political groupings, is particularly interesting in the way it Turkifies every invasion force, occupation army and government after the Turkic-speaking Mongols ransacked Iraq in the thirteenth century. This Turco-centric angle is so pervasive that the Turkish soldiery of the Persian Shah are given more importance than the Persian occupation of Baghdad itself, while the Ottoman Empire’s reconquest and control of Iraq are subsumed into the wider narrative of “Turkish” expansion without a thought given to the multi-ethnic plurality and diversity that made up the Ottoman experience. Finally, more astounding still, and completely unsupported by historical facts, is the claim that, “The Turks have ruled Iraq from 833 to 1924.”

The Iraqi Turcomans’ focus on Turkey is conditioned by Turkey’s “big brother” role in northern Iraq after the Gulf war and the reality of regional politics. In the wake of Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf war of 1991, the Turkish Republic has been re-energizing its support for Iraqi Turcoman groups, trying to stave off the specter of a potential Kurdish state and bolstering Iraq’s territorial integrity in the face of Turkey’s rival in the region, Iran (see www.foreignpolicy.org.tr/ing/books/oguzlu_09.html). The Iraqi Turcomans’ emphasis on Turkey’s position in northern Iraq is also complemented by the realization that regional alliances, both of a formal and informal kind, must be initiated among the many Turkish-language groups in neighboring countries, such as in Syria, Iran, Armenia, Azerbayjan and Turkey itself, in order to provide a counterweight to the Iraqi Turcomans’ political isolation.

It is the Iraqi Turcomans’ attempt to strike an equitable balance between these regional proclivities and their community’s wholesale identification with Iraq as their country of origin that provides a dilemma that has yet to be solved satisfactorily. For while all the Turcoman websites I looked at unequivocally back a unified Iraq, characterized by democracy, human rights, freedom and a multi-parliamentary system, these same sites also refer back to the historical injustices committed against the Turcomans from as early as 1936 onwards. The ambivalence towards the Iraqi state is manifested in a number of ways. For instance, the community historically assimilated faster than other minorities in the country, in part because most of its members were Sunni Muslim and Turcophile, two assets that allowed Turcomans easy access, and integration into the post-Ottoman Sunni elite. As early as 1921 and definitely by 1947, Iraqi Turcomans had begun moving to Baghdad and other cities in Iraq, and begun the process of acculturating into an Arab environment.[7] And yet most websites skirt the issue of voluntary assimilation altogether (perhaps because it dilutes a Turcoman political platform?); their ire is reserved for Iraqi government attempts to forcibly deport Turcomans from their ancestral homeland in the north of the country to locations further south at an accelerated pace from about 1970 onwards (See www.turkmencephesi.org/english.htm). The Iraqi government is also criticized for defaulting on language and cultural rights, political assassinations of prominent Turcoman politicians and army officers, and favoritism to other minorities in Iraq.

And yet there is hope that in a post-Saddam Hussein era, the three-million strong (by their count) Turcoman community will once again regain its position in society. This is apparent from the relations its members have forged with other non-Arab minorities in the north such as the Kurds. For despite fierce contestation over Kirkuk, the city claimed by Turcomans as well as Kurds, the Turcomans have moved towards acceptance of a future federal arrangement for Iraq, in which indigenous communities have a chance to preserve their autonomy in a decentralized state system  (see www.kurdishobserver.com/2000/11/26/hab01.html). The interesting thing to note about the Turcomans is that, as the most assimilated minority in northern Iraq, they seem to feel that they have no other agenda but to stay where they are and to defend themselves against the encroachment of the Iraqi state. Short of a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq that might set off a chain of events in which the Iraqi Turcomans would then revert to the “mother” country, (at present a remote possibility), the Turcomans have no intention of declaring independence from Iraq. As their websites make very clear, the Turcomans have a long history of attachment to the country that goes well beyond a resigned acceptance of their socio-political situation in a dictatorial state. The Turcomans value the fact that Iraq as a whole, and especially the northern part of the country, is the established homeland from which their fathers and forefathers spread out all over the country, and they are justifiably proud of their achievements in the making of the country, and its traditions. Were it not for the depradations visited upon them by Iraqi governments of the past as well as the present, the Turcomans quite conceivably would have no qualms about returning to Iraq, to live side by side with other minorities in a state that guaranteed their civic, socio-cultural, political and economic rights. And while all diasporic communities subscribe to the myth of “return,” the Turcomans may be the one Iraqi group that will actually fulfill it.

Assyrians on the Net.

In comparison to the paucity of Turcoman sites on the web, there is a veritable plethora of Assyrian cyber communities, quite a number of which are hosted by various Assyrian groups in North America, Europe and Australia. Indeed, the San Jose Mercury News reported in its September 2, 2001 edition(http://www.assyria.ninevah.com), that “persecuted and displaced from their ancestral home in the Middle East, Assyrians are finding a virtual homeland in cyberspace.” A typical website is that of the Assyrian International News Agency, which sets down the Assyrian credo, in all of its bold simplicity, in this way: “Assyrians are not Arabs. Assyrians, including Chaldeans and Syriacs [of which Maronites are a branch], are the indigenous Christian people of Mesopotamia and have a history, spanning seven thousand years, that predates the Arab conquest of the region”(www.aina.org). While this is the view held by the majority of Assyrians around the world, it is nonetheless the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet to non-Assyrian Iraqis. By not equating themselves with an Arab civilization that “Arabized” the majority of Iraq’s native population, and by pointedly referring to Iraq as Mesopotamia even after eighty-odd years of its establishment as a nation-state, most non-Assyrian Iraqi Arabs would consider AINA’s views as somewhat anachronistic, if not apolitical and narrowly nationalistic. Paradoxically, AINA’s portrayal of Assyrian “civilization [as] the foundation of Arab civilization” rings true with many Assyrians today, even as it continues to rankle Arabs wherever they are. Indeed, the fall-out from the Assyrians’ insistence that they are just who they say they are took on such grave dimensions that on October 5, 2001 AINA lodged an online protest against the Arab American Institute, the Chicago Tribune and several other groups in the US, categorically rejecting the labeling of Assyrians as “Arab.” [8]

This theme is picked up by other Assyrian websites. One site that tries to bypass polemics and offer a perspective on the current situation of Assyrian Iraqis is that of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, or Zowaa, a highly interesting mix of political activism, historical narrative and visionary pragmatics (www.atour.com/adm/docs/history.htm). As the premier site of Iraqi Assyrians, it focuses on the development of Assyrian activism in the country, and relates the history of oppression, assassinations, deportation and exile familiar to most Assyrian Iraqis. But as Zowaa’s representative in the US and Canada, Dr. Lincoln Malik, makes clear these massacres represent only part of [Assyrian] history, albeit its most painful part. We must look at history comprehensively and with purpose. Selective renditions of history may help win an argument in a coffee-shop, but are not useful for serious political deliberations. To be relevant, the discussion must focus on the ideas and strategies offered our people in the current historical era. Abstract discussions of what may have been, or ought to be, will not deliver our people from their current national dilemma.

Always speaking for ADM, or Zowaa, Dr. Malik asserts that Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq, and not a national or ethnic, religious or linguistic minority. As such, their rights in Bet-Nahren, the Assyrian homeland (most of which is in northern Iraq, but also extends to Syria, Iran and Turkey) are guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples and have the full weight of international law behind them. Assyrians refuse assimilation and will never accept forced “Arabization” by the regime, and yet they are “loyal Iraqis…who love their country, and will join the struggle to save it from the hated dictatorship. In this [the Assyrians] are allied with the broad masses of the Iraqi people from the Kurdish north to the Shia Arab south.” Therefore, everything must be done to protect and preserve the Assyrian community still in Iraq, “under the banner of democracy in Iraq, and affirmation of [the Assyrian] national existence in [their] homeland.”

ADM’s insistence that cultural rights cannot stand alone, and must be buttressed by political and civil liberties finds wide echo among other Assyrian political parties. One of these, the Assyrian Democratic Organization or Mtakasta, claims a deeper affinity with Assyrians in Syria (www.atour.com). Ironically, the ADO has developed a wide rift with the ADM, which it accuses of highhandedness, excessive secrecy and ill-advised political alliances with various Iraqi Kurdish factions. But both the ADO and ADM are adamant that a political solution to Assyrian rights must be found within the greater Iraqi [or, in ADO’s case, Syrian] nation. The vision of a supra-Assyrian nation endowed with cultural, religious and linguistic privileges and functioning as a collective standard to which all Assyrians should aspire is a useful panacea for the Assyrian diaspora, but untenable as a realistic alternative.

Finally, among the most interesting sites on the web is that of the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, the only scholarly publication devoted entirely to “serious research about the culture of the Assyrians, from and after the time it survived the demise of empire” (www.jaas.org). The premise of the journal is itself intriguing, and speaks to the dispersal of Assyrian communities all over the world. Briefly stated, JAAS believes that it is high time for scholars to move away from the study of Assyrian civilization in Antiquity, and the legends of the “fall,” to a study of Assyrians in the modern world, especially in the diaspora. As a leading Assyrian specialist states on the front page of JAAS, “confusion [exists] between the annihilation of the Assyrian political system [i.e Assyria in Antiquity] and the annihilation of the Assyrian people,” by which the Professor is of course referring to the history of oppression of the Assyrian people by various regimes, Iraqi, Iranian and Turkish from the beginning of the early twentieth century onwards.

In two fascinating reviews of the Saudi anthropologist Madawi Al-Rasheed’s book, Iraqi Assyrian Christians in London: The Construction of Ethnicity in a recent issue of JAAS, a number of additional points are made with respect to the realities of Assyrian diasporic existence in the UK and elsewhere. While one reviewer gently takes her to task for daring to question the idea that present-day Assyrians are the direct descendants of Assyrians of old, and launches into a physiognomic investigation that ends up in the Assyrian section of the Louvre Museum in Paris (!), another criticizes her for conflating the five recognized “Assyrian” denominations with the Church of the East (the Assyrian National Church). Throughout the reviews, the reader is continually made aware of the “ever-morphing spectacle” of Assyrians forgetting parts of their historical existence and over-inflating others, and including some Assyrian denominations while forgetting others. Finally in view of the strong statements made by Assyrian political parties on the web, it is interesting to note the scholarly consensus on present-day Assyrians in London as being virtually apolitical, and so conservative as to be reclusive in all matters except religion and language.

The Use (and Abuse) of History.

I have already referred to Turcoman claims of a continuous Turkish political presence in the whole of Iraq “from 833 to 1924,” an assertion far too metaphorical to be historically accurate. A similar reinterpretation of history is made by other groups in the region. In its official letter to the Arab-American Institute, asking it to stop identifying Assyrians and Maronites as Arabs, the Coalition of American Assyrians and Maronites (CAM) lays stress on several issues, all of them relating to the distinctive histories claimed by different peoples in the Arab/Middle East region. CAM asserts that Assyrians and Maronites are ethnically distinct from Arabs while the Assyrians also are different on the linguistic front; that both the Assyrians and Maronites diverge from the rest of the native peoples in the region by virtue of their Christianity; that Assyrians are the indigenous peoples of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria and northwest Iran while Maronites are the indigenous peoples of Lebanon, and finally, and this is the clincher, “that Assyrians and their civilizations, and the Phoenicians of Lebanon, span seven thousand years and predate the Arab conquest of the region” (www.aina.org).

Both the Turcoman and Assyrian visions of religious-linguistic-cultural differences and sweeping historical pretensions are matertially assisted by the freedom and, to a certain extent, the anonymity of the net. But freedom and anonymity quite often function as ancillaries to the larger Turcoman and Assyrian projects of regaining a political foothold in Iraq on more equitable terms than before. While recourse to the greater Assyrian Empire or pan-Turkism is a necessary marker in identity politics, making possible the further in-gathering of diasporic communities in cyberspace around a central ideology of cultural inclusiveness and pride of place, the more pragmatic Turcoman and Assyrian political leadership do not accord history as privileged a position as political survival or, indeed, national regeneration. For instance, Mr. Ninos Gaboro, the head of the Assyrian Democratic Organization is on record as supporting the following positions:

That [the Assyrian leadership] concentrate on minimizing dispersion of our peoples, especially in the Middle East [and] that [the leadership] actively involve the educated segment of our society in the decision-making process and every other political and economic aspect of our lives.

In order to do so, ADO or the name it goes by in wider Assyrian circles, Mtakasto, believes that the most urgent objectives in Syria, Iraq and wherever Assyrians are settled, are to

  • Secure [Assyrians’] national existence,
  • Awaken and develop our national identity;
  • Support unity among various denominations and
  • Work for the recognition of Assyrian national existence in the Middle East,

all of which are legitimate rights (www.atour.com).

Similarly, the Assyrian Democratic Movement, (Zowaa for Assyrians) is for the strict enforcement of human rights for Assyrians in Iraq because “Assyrians…do not have an ancestral homeland outside of Iraq.” Thus in both parties’ appeal for a reliable survival mechanism to protect Assyrians, whether in Iraq or Syria, the notion of a wider Assyrian nation independent of, and oblivious to, any successor regime that came after “the fall,” is circumscribed out of necessity and pragmatic consideration.

Conclusion.

Eleven years after the Gulf war and the relentless caricature of Iraqis as a compound of Sunnis, Shi’is and Kurds, the view Iraq as another Yugoslavia ready to break up into ethnic or sectarian enclaves continues to have a solid constituency of inveterate Iraq-bashers in the US government and media. Inevitably, this construction relegates other Iraqi ethnic and religious communities,of whom it is are barely aware, to an obscurity which they most certainly do not deserve. Perhaps because neither the Turcomans nor the Assyrians fit readily into the US’s strategic vision for Iraq (unlike the Kurds and the Shi’a), both groups must fight for their existence using uncommon tools. Of these, the Internet is the most versatile. At once virtual meeting place, ethnicity index, cultural club and political barometer, the Internet brings diasporic communities together and shakes them up into a heady mixture. What emerges is a field of dreams that achieves its greatest actualization on the World Wide Web.By allowing the convergence of dozens of sites on greater Turkmenistan and Assyria to project the histories of indigenous peoples, and their collective visions of the future, the Internet makes possible the renegotiation of identities and nationalities that had long been relegated to the backwaters of exile. Unlike the facile generalizations in the “illegitimacy” thesis that present Iraqi nationalism as a brittle phenomenon held together by state coercion, Turcoman and Assyrian websites are fully agreed on their Iraqi-ness, but seek to define it on their own terms. Because both communities view Iraq as their homeland par excellence, and the Turcoman and Assyrian populations still settled in the country as tangible proof of their civilazational heritage as well as their future promise, neither community thinks of questioning their Iraqi nationhood. Nonetheless, by means of their online agendas for cultural and political regeneration, and their re-imbued visions of citizenship in Iraq, Turcoman and Assyrian activists online are putting the world, and especially Iraq, on notice of their programs and intentions, and so beginning a vital and necessary dialogue to reopen the question of their long-awaited “return” to the homeland.

Notes.

1 Charles Tripp. A History of Iraq. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

2 Hanna Batatu. The Old Social Classes and the New Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, pp.47-50

[3] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991, pp.1-7

[4] Michael C. Hudson, “Creative Destruction”: Information Technology and the Political Culture Revolution in the Arab World, revised version of a paper presented at the Conference on Transnationalism, sponsored by the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies,Amman, Jordan, June 19-21,2000. (nmit.georgetown.edu/papers/mchudson.htm).

[5] Dirk Hoerder, “Negotiating Nations: Exclusions, Networks, Inclusions.” Histoire Sociale/Social History Vol.XXXIII, November 2000, p.226

[6] Jon Alterman, “Transnational Media and Regionalism,” Transnational Broadcasting Studies No.1, Fall 1998.(www.Tbsjournal.com/Archives/Fall98/Articles 1/JA1/jal.html).

[7] Stephen Helmsley Longrigg. Iraq, 1900 to 1950. London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1953, p.9 and p.381

[8] At a conference on Iraq at Villanova University, Pa., in 1988, which I was fortunate to attend, an Assyrian clergyman made the comment that Assyrians were “Iraqis, not Arabs.” An Egyptian Professor in the audience immediately got up from his seat to challenge the assertion, but failed to make headway with the clergyman

posted: 12/28/2001


Dr. Hala Fattah is an historian and independent scholar attached to the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies, Amman, Jordan. She can be contacted via email to hmf@index.com.jo


All Rights Reserved. May not be reprinted in any format without permission of the Author.

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