Identity" or "Ethnic War"?
The Endurance Test in the Republic of Macedonia
Institute of Anthropology,
University of Copenhagen1
Paper presented at the MESS Conference: "Macedonian Knots", Piran, Slovenia, September 20, 2001
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Introduction: Choosing a Title that Fits
Troubles with Tropes
Macedonia in the Middle
An Interlude on Method
Two Anecdotes Ten Years Apart
Flashbacks and Revisits
In November 1994, anthropologists at University College, London, organized a Forum Against Ethnic Violence conference with the title: "Macedonia: the Next Balkan Tragedy, or a Model for Multiculturalism?" My paper for this workshop is in some respects a variation on the conference theme of seven years ago. I suspect too that my terms for the alternative choices, "contested identity" and "ethnic war", closely approximate the current realities of the situation during the past six months. The either/or of "tragedy" and "model" in comparison seemed more hypothetical than real. "Models of" and "models for" (C. Geertz' phrase 1973) are ideal types (what I call "is-ness" and "ought-ness") which in actual life-events - including speech - impinge upon each other in various ambiguous ways. Representations - those acts where we put "things" into "words" - blend together depictive and normative accounts, the "models of" and the "models for". The antimony of the two models is ideal typical and therefore has no exact correspondence with empirical reality. This exact correspondence was exactly what positivist science theory had in its cleavage between a privileged "model of" and the value-ladden "model for". Geertz prefers to stay in the pendular swing which Simmel and Weber had sketched for the method of the understanding human sciences vis à vis the explanatory natural sciences. The constant pendular swing is dizzying and in its own way tragic.
In 1994, the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina was raging; the war in Kosovo was imminent and appeared in almost every cool observer's crystal ball. The Republic of Macedonia seemed, in spite of a crippled economy, to endure as a multi-ethnic body politic, the last survivor, maybe even a relic, of erstwhile Yugoslavia. Few, if any, of the anthropologists and NGO'ers who participated in the London meeting of 1994 really thought of the Republic of Macedonia as a "model of multiculturalism", but all of us were hoping for an avoidance of Bosnia-like tragedy. A similar hope is surely present in this gathering on the Adriatric coast of Slovenia.
So what does the experience of an anthropologist really matter? We have hopes and fears like everyone else who is sensitive and not stricken with indifference. In what sense does anthropological research create knowledge that other sorts of scholars and journalists miss out on? What skills or magic do we possess that can untangle the Macedonian knots?
My question in the title to this paper suggests a good part of the answer. "Ethnic war" between Albanians and Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia is, at the writing of this paper (August/September 2001), reported on Danish television and in the daily papers on an average of every other day. Sometimes the lapses of attention are longer, as when a cease-fire is in effect. Mediators from the EU and the USA attempt to draw the political leaders from the Republic's two large ethnic and linguistic communities into a dialogue that can result in a mutually acceptable reform. The dissident Albanian group, which since March, has taken control of villages in the north and western municipal districts, like Tetovo, with an Albanian majority , is not at the negotiating tables, nor are the militant Macedonian activists who take revenge on Albanians in cities like Bitola where Albanians are a minority.
All this is known from journalists' reports. So why anthropology?
"Contested identity" is one of the strong, current concepts in anthropological research, and it seldom finds its way into journalists' reportage. When I claim that "contested identity" is a good answer to the question, it doesn't make the answer a simple one. It points to a complex and unsettled state of affairs, in which actors, informants, and anthropologists engage in each other's lives, and where Goffman's backstage and frontstage revolve around each other, and the audience likewise. I do not want to designate this topsy-turvy scene a uniquely "post-modern" condition, however. The world has always been revolving, and so we have been growing dizzy. Vertigo is chronic.
"Contested Identity" is the title of a collection of articles on the ethnography of gender and kinship in contemporary Greek society (Loizos and Papataxiarchus 1991). There is a wild garden variety of "contested" experiences, for the phrase can refer, singly or in conjunction with others, to gender, ethnic, class, regional, religious, professional and national affiliations. Have I forgotten to name any? Anthropologists also like to speak of "contesting identity" to indicate the ongoing, unresolved quality of the social experience that is being researched. Just as we have called into question the concept of culture as a permanent, fixed substance, we now turn attention to the concept of identity and attempt to reveal its fluid but nonetheless real forms. The phrase "cultural" in conjunction with "community" is the typical shorthand way of representing identity in the dominant singular form (Baumann 1996). Social experience, however, is never singular, it is always plural. "Contesting identity" is, I think, the only singular way to encompass the basic pluralities of social life.
"Contestedness" involves those mediating practices between "conflict" on one hand and "consensus" on the other. For experience to be "contested" there is an implicit "contesting", or present participial action. Contested identity means contesting identities. Neither the essential agreement of "cultural consensus" nor the absolute contradiction of "class conflict" pervades the notion of "contested identity".
"Being contested" is being in the middle. The term can refer to disputes between two, or even more groups, over the same cultural stuff, including historical space. The ideological and political duel over the name Macedonia, the sun-beam symbol (from an ancient archeological find), and the heroic Alexander (taught by Aristotle) come immediately to mind (Brown 2000). "Contested identity" in this set of situations requires a semiotic analysis by the anthropologist, in which icons, indices, and symbols (Charles Peirce's triad of signs, cf. Singer 1984) constitute the interpretive field. In order to identify contestedness, one must perceive and select from the repertoire of signed activity in a social field. If "the past" is, as Appadurai (1981) once proposed, "a scarce resource", contests over the rare "goods" can be lively, virulent, and violent. Anthropologists, but rarely their informants, "approach history as a negotiable entity" (Herzfeld 1992:65). The charge of "cultural relativism" against the anthropological profession has generally been dropped, but the mood and method of deconstruction open the way for historical relativism. Our informants bitterly resent any allusion to their history as "imagined community" (Anderson 1983). Nevertheless, we can point out that resemblance between persons who share an icon from the past signal, at one moment their conjunctive community, and at another moment, their disjunctive contempt. Again, as Appadurai noted in a keen semiotic perception, the hyphen in "nation-state" can now "serve less an icon of conjunction, than an index of disjunction" (Appadurai 1990:304). "Blood" can unite "brothers", it can also denote theft and betrayal, as when one speaks of "bad blood". The tropes in these representations guide the narrative substance of a theory, or an ideology, or a discourse. Tropes make (as in poesis) for a strong and durable image, cementing, as it were, the social memory.
For ethnic, national, and political narratives, genealogical continuity, as in a family's lineage, is a characteristic theme. The metaphor of family is genealogical, revealed in portraits, and to make the iconic resemblance even more persuasive, the metonyms of blood and bones are conjoined (Herzfeld 1997, Verdery 1999). Violent ruptures in continuity and foreign penetration into territory - Ottoman domination, or "Turkey in Europe" - provide the tragic contrasts to the narrative of continuity. "Ours Once More!", "a Nation Once Again!", are familiar refrains in hymns to the nation's fall from Eden and its (often her) redemption (Herzfeld 1982, 1987).
So much of social reality and our attempts to make social theory more or less correspond to it seem to lie "in the middle", what some analysts like to call the "grey zone" but actually the middle's colors are as many as in Joseph's coat. The middle region, as in our own bodies, is where social life is most dense, most variegated, and most sensitive. And most contested as well as congested! Think of all the vital organs that crowd the space of our bellies. Michael Herzfeld offers another good use of the "middle" metaphor when he advocates "a middle militant ground" in anthropology between the polarities of essentialism and agency, structure and practice (Herzfeld 1997:165-73). Whatever we inquire into and explore, the abdomen - militant, vital and erotic - cannot escape our attention. Contemplating one's navel is a stigmatized activity, but that doesn't prevent its occurrence.
"Contested identity" is one of the sure ways to characterize "the Macedonian problem". I won't go into the history of this idea but merely skim off the recent past. "The Balkans" in general, and Macedonia in particular, are characterized as an ambiguous region between East and West. Indeed, the perennially sensitive regions in Europe tend to lie "betwixt and between", stretching from the Baltic north to the Balkan south.
Both as a territory and as an ancient historical object Macedonia symbolized Europe's triumphant expansion into the Orient: the age of Hellenism. During the Ottoman Empire Macedonia was portrayed in the exact reverse as "Turkey in Europe". Modern Macedonia thereby "personifies" contested identities, with the culinary symbol "Salade Macedoine" consisting of numerous sliced fruits and vegetables.
Just think if there were enough good history to satisfy every group's needs! Good things, alas, are scarce. If, however, the past is bitter experience, there is usually too much of it. The richest historical museum in Denmark is in Sønderborg Castle, in the south of Jutland on the border to Germany. Every chamber of that museum's collection of modern times (1864, 1914, 1940) tells a tragic story of loss to German power. Sønderjylland is Denmark's Macedonia.
"History is scar tissue" (Schwartz 1996). The scars index those events on our own bodies that have histories such as memorable injuries that provoke pride as well as pain. When history is scar tissue, the main goal is to explain how it got there. Personal memories too have a way of growing collective, and vice versa. Narratives start out as stories told by "we" and turn into stories about "myself". They can start out as anecdotes of one's own life and turn into "our (class, nation's, gender's, generation's, etc.) history". Genealogies are individual and collective. Egoism is unavoidably collective. Egoism can be, for example, macho and /or chauvinist.
Contested identity within a nation-state seems at first glance to be an abnormality. Macedonia is thought of as a rare specimen, not only because it is composed of heterogeneous cultures, but because its creation was the result of outside political forces and interests. Is that so unusual? Doesn't every nation-state have "peculiar" origins? Isn't this why the hyphen between nation and state is, as already noted (Appadurai 1990), not so much "an icon of conjuncture as an index of disjuncture"? Macedonian identity, in its strongest national discourse, claims its long genealogy as an ancestor of Western European authority. In the present, its reality is made the object of ridicule.
Macedonia, then, is a creation of contested identities, involving broken and continuous genealogies. One of the main problems in the "contested identity" of Macedonia is that so many neighboring "others" (Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania) have denied its authenticity, its "real genealogy" as a people. Lack of recognition is a big scar for Macedonians. In international diplomacy, the Republic is called by the anonymous achronym "FYROM" (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia).
If the Republic is to stay alive in this time of ordeals, it will continue to involve contesting identities of the sorts just named. That is a much, much better alternative to an all-out ethnic war with its Albanian citizens.
"Contested identity" in current anthropological discourse is not the equivalent of armed conflict. Contested identity rather approaches the field of differences in the light of social transactions, that is, in Fredrik Barth's classic notion of boundary maintenance (1969). Here, the Republic of Macedonia until the breakup of Yugoslavia, and in the ten years of Independence since 1991, may be studied as a case of "contested identity". Proving one's identity is a salient form of the contest. As noted, during the first four years of the Republic's independence, Macedonian citizens at home and in diaspora exerted much of their effort in the international arena, notably with Greece, to demarcate their national identity.
In the mid-1990's, "contested identity" became increasingly a domestic issue for the Republic of Macedonia. Early in 1995, Albanian nationalists started their own university in Tetovo, and a sharp conflict ensued, with confrontations between Macedonian police and Albanian activists (Schwartz 1996). The status of the Tetovo University was "private", "political" and "illegal", and the University actually expanded over a six-year period. Threats to disperse it were never enacted. The university milieu is surely one of the places for the thriving Albanian independence movement.
During this same period of the 1990's, projects of the emergent civil society in the Republic of Macedonia stimulated and funded ethnic, gender, linguistic, religious, and regional identities. Civil society organizations in the western metropoles thus acted as coaches for identity projects in democratization and cultural freedom, including manifestations of ethnicity. The putative "multicultural model" therefore is better recognized as protective contests of identities. The financing of independent, local radio stations, which were supported by the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, exemplifies the identity movement. A condition for receiving funds was that every ethnic and linguistic community in the region could have a share in broadcast time. Local radio was, as the term implies, a function of the "neighborhood" (Appadurai 1995). Listeners tuned in to the station and phoned their comments and requests for music. NGOs were, more often than not, DJs!
The Albanian university in Tetovo can serve, then, as a watershed between civil society goals of cultural freedom on one side of the mountain and militant, separatist nationalism on the other side of the mountain. This is, put succinctly, the geopolitics of Kosova(o). Civil liberties and nationalist missions are entangled in "the Project", and "the Project" is itself a gift "with strings attached" from the Western metropoles. The social scientist must learn to perceive the uncivil workings of "the civil society" (Sampson 1996, Keane 1998).
My representation of the disappearing civil society reflects the present condition of ethnic warfare in the Republic of Macedonia. There are programs of the "civil society" which pronounce a rhetoric of cultural rights but which also precipitate actions that are by no means civil. Nationalist and religious movements are launched in the spirit of emancipation. They can be organizations of terror and repression as well. Those members of an ethnic, religious, national group who dissent from the decisions of the leadership are taken to be traitors. To stand in the middle ground of reconciliation becomes ever more dangerous, once an armed conflict has begun. The experience of Bosnians is remembered and reflected upon by the overwhelming majority of ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, and by other ethnic minorities in the Republic. The paramilitary forces on both extremes are those men who forget or deny the reality of Bosnia.A modest proposal? NATO forces in the Republic of Macedonia might provide round-trip transport for the avid Albanian and Macedonian warriors to towns in Bosnia so they can meet the survivors and inspect the vast ruins and graveyards of the war, 1992-95.
The shifting contexts of our fields seem to push small events and anecdotes into the foreground of attention. It's something like the stones in a corn field that all at once appear in early springtime after being pressed to the surface by winter's frost. The anecdotes become even more significant than when they were first jotted in the notebooks. Maybe they were not jotted down at all, but they come up to the surface from memory. They appear suddenly, like epiphanies, out of the depths of experience. Although unique, even peculiar, they somehow are convincing summaries of what we like to call "wholes". "Symbols", as Sherry Ortner once pointed out (1973), are of two types: "summarizing" and "elaborating". These ideal types, on further scrutiny, can be shown to be closely connected in semiotic interpretations. Both types of symbols are indexical. "Summarizing" suggests a condensing process, a Dichtung. And "elaborating" suggests an expansion. In our bodies, it is inhaling and exhaling. The accordion is both a summarizing and an elaborating symbol. Its sounds come from closing and opening. The accordion is good to think with and it's even better to dance to.
What follows this interlude are two anecdotes from what I would like to call a "life history", but I know that that would be an exaggeration. There are only tiny moments from a person's history where I was present, but those moments were significant for the person, and as anthropologist I amplify those small bits of conversation and reveal them as key-note anecdotes in an inquiry into ethnic relations in the Balkans. I wilI stress the anecdotes' interpretive aspects by choosing the details that speak to the interpretations: Not the hybrid "cut and mix", but the selective "cut and paste".
My method in this article is minimalist. Which, or how much, empirical material is adequate for representing a situation in its totality?
I do not usually interview the persons I meet in the field, when that field is in a Macedonian village. When sitting in the living room of a Macedonian home in a suburb of Toronto, an interview approach is more appropriate. Diaspora is a site for interviewing and especially for gathering the "inscribing practices", as distinct from "incorporating practices" of a community's social memory (Connerton 1989). I sometimes put the difference in an overly simple way. "In Toronto, the Macedonians publish ethnic cookbooks; in Macedonia they just cook."
We should in our workshop pay close attention to the dual typing of our methodological tool-kit. I have just mentioned Ortner's summarizing and elaborating symbols, that, on inspection, are contingent, not opposite. More dubious, I think, are the dual typologies of persons in a "single group". Herbert Gans' dichotomous typification of Italian male immigrants in Boston as "action-seekers" and "routine-seekers" (1962) and his subsequent distinction between "the older ethnic culture" and "symbolic ethnicity" (1979) seem evident enough at the start, but they ought not steer the analysis all the way.
Are not human culture and communication "symbolic" from start to finish? Is the "genuine" culture privileged over the "spurious" in anthropological research? And if so, isn't this much more a sign of the construction of a culture concept than culture itself? (Sapir 1924, and Stocking 1989). Does the "authentic" die out only to be preserved and performed in the "spurious" imitations, in "merely symbolic" forms? Where is the line to be drawn between the two, the "authentic" and the "symbolic"? Isn't the distinction itself the veritably spurious one?
In Macedonia I try to make my interest, curiosity, and admiration an incitement for the informants' hospitality. Goffman (1959) calls this complex set of motives "impression management", and that phrase encompasses, I think, much of what we mean by "ethnic identity" in personal transactions (Lyman and Douglass 1973). Ethnographic fieldwork edges upon the impression managements of ordinary ethnicity. We are not so much ethno-centric as we are poly-ethnic. Our informants notice our interests in ethnicity, and as generous hosts, they serve up large portions to our satisfaction. It is a fuzzy boundary line between being authentic and being an actor. Once again Erving Goffman's observations can help our study of ethnic identity, if only because we as social scientists enter the field with some of the same quasi-ethnic qualities as our informants. We should remember that it was Goffman who persuaded his readers that everyday routine resembled religious ritual. This peculiar resemblance is one of the central elements in ethnomethodology. The "ethno" as prefix connotes a cultural and religious coherence, which ethnomethodology carries into the modern world. Modern everyday life is conducted as if it were a primitive ritual. These techniques of "defamiliarization" and "repatriation" (Marcus and Fischer 1986) began to dissolve Durkheim's distinction between the "profane" and the "sacred" spheres in social institutions. By questioning the assumed body-spirit distinction of the profane and the sacred, the anthropological critique served to augment the total force of society. "Ritual" was manifested throughout the entire society. Religion, thus, did not disappear in modern, routinized, rational, and secular society. Ritual reappeared rather as the grand metaphor for representing society-at-large. It became one of the metaphors we, in this case social scientists, "live by" (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). Now the time has come to re-enter the field and select from notebooks and memories some events and anecdotes that expand into comprehensiveness and communicability.
I met S. in July 1982. He is an Albanian man from a village that is half Albanian Muslim and half Macedonian Orthodox. At least half of the village population lives and works abroad in Australia, Canada, United States, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. The farmers in the village are apple-growers. S. has lived in Australia for most of his youth. He emigrated in 1966 when he was fifteen years old, and he returned to Macedonia in the previous year when his father was too old and ill to do the hard work of apple cultivation and marketing. Half his life in Australia, half in Macedonia. Three of his siblings now lived abroad (Australia, Canada, and the U.S.A), and two others in Macedonia. There is, I found, a recurrent symmetry in the family histories of migration.
S. Is married to an Albanian woman from the village, and they had two children when we met, a boy ten and a girl eight. Both were born in Melbourne.
S. was very eager to show me the work he could do, even though, he said, he learned all these things when he was a child before he sailed to Australia where his work was mostly in factories and in greenhouses. S. went to Australia because that is where his paternal grandfather lived and where he died. When S. returned in 1981, all the skills seemed to return as well. That was a joy for him. "I love the mountain here and the clean water and fresh air," he said in his Australian accent. One evening, he asked me if I wanted to go up the mountain the next morning to chop firewood and take it down to his house on his donkey's back.That was the sort of offer an anthropologist cannot refuse. S. showed me how he selected the wood (an oak tree he had his eye on for several years) chopped and split it neatly into proper lengths. It was my job to place the pieces into two equal piles so the donkey could keep balance as he carried them in the specially designed sling. We started down the mountain slope, following the donkey and the dog who kept his eye on snakes in the pathway.
When we reached the small Orthodox church at the edge of the village, S. said I should take a piece of firewood from each side of the donkey and throw them both onto a small pile by the church gate. He said: "It's a present". I answered, "But you are a Muslim". "I know, but we all do it here. It's a sacrifice."
This gesture of "giving to the other" became a key event in my understanding of ethnic groups and boundaries in Macedonian rural societies. A little piece of wood goes a long way! S. knew I was interested in such matters, so he gave me what I wanted most. He was doing what Erving Goffman called "impression managment", and I, as an ethnographer, was probably doing it too. When are we our "real selves"? When are we acting roles, as if on a stage? Goffman, I think, would have to answer that it is always a question of "when" and "how". Both answers constitute the sites of social reality. It's a "both/and", not an "either/or". S. was revealing an aspect of his identity that he knew would interest me. But this interpretation does not discredit that aspect of his identity.
In July 1992 I visited S. again. The war in Bosnia was underway. Yugoslavia was violently torn apart. My visit on this occasion was in his living room, and he told me that his daughter had just gotten married two weeks ago and had moved to Copenhagen with her husband. He put a video film of the wedding into the VCR and we watched the long ritual. S. looked very uncomfortable in the film, and he admitted that his stomach was ailing him. He looked miserably hot and sweating. At once he turned to me, and while the endless wedding scenes were going on, he said: "You know, Jonny, during the war, Bulgarians came to our village and took sixteen Albanians down to the stream and chopped them to death. Their bodies are still there under a pile of stones. You can go down there and look."
My representation of the disappearing civil society no doubt reflects the present condition of ethnic warfare in the Republic of Macedonia. In 1982, S. was interested to show me how he and his Macedonian neighbors maintained their differences and signed them by symbolic gifts, In 1992, S. was interested in digging up the bones of mistrust and hatred. The two situations together form a context, a large text, you can say. Without questioning S.'s authenticity, he was in both situations dramatizing two aspects of his Albanian, Yugoslavian, migrant, regional identity and history. These two anecdotes, moreover, tell the story of "contested identity" in the Republic of Macedonia. Anthropology is created through the swelling and merging of well-chosen, well-remembered anecdotes (e.g. Ruth Benedict's "our cup is broken" 1934). A body once dismembered is remembered (Denich 1994).
My dread these days and months is that ethnic war in Macedonia will annihilate any chance for contesting identity in everyday life, not to mention having a dialogue about it.
Odysseus' homecoming to Ithaca, as narrated by Homer, includes world literature's first "flashback" (Auerbach 1965). The identity of the returning hero is unknown to his wife, and it is during the ritual bathing of the man's feet that his aging nurse recognizes the scar he received as a child during a wild boar hunt. Odysseus' scar tissue tells his identity. And because Odysseus is still testing his wife's fidelity, he holds his hand over the nurse's mouth, so she cannot say what she knows. Penelope is in the same room.
Homer puts this past event into the dramatic narrative in the mode we call "flashbacks" in cinema. Disconnected events can be framed and reconnected so as to make sense. Coherence is achieved; better yet, it is ascribed. Is it not the author who makes the coherence? Anthropology's "crisis of representations" and the identity crises of anthropologists are not what they used to be. Most of us have pulled through, and it is our informants we return to, all too often to hear their suffering.
I refer to S. in this paper. I used to refer to him by his real first name, rather, his names, one the authentic Muslim name, the second a common English nickname, a name that made life a bit easier for him in Australia. This re-naming is a common event in a migrant worker's identity after the move from the "exotic", "remote" homeland to the Anglo-aboriginal diaspora. In my previously published portrait of S., (Schwartz 1985, 1996) I used both his names candidly, because I was gambling that there was nothing to hide, no substantial risk of exposing him to persecution. Anonymity was not necessary. Since March 2001, however, he has become S.
I saw him last in 1995 when I and my wife visited him in April, while he was pruning his apple trees with the help of a couple from the neighbor state, Albania. During this visit, S. impressed me again with his Albanian consciousness. He was active in the Albanian political party P.D.P., and he had become a more religious Muslim.
He hired the Albanians to prune his trees as a gesture of solidarity, and he was impressed by their professional skills. "They went to school to learn." he explained. They didn't use ladders but climbed on the branches which could hold their weight. S. Also contacted his friends and family members and urged them to hire the couple.
I was surprised by a visit later that year by S. at my university office in Copenhagen. He and his son-in-law came by, and we had a cup of coffee. The visit was brief, maybe because the two men felt very much out of place in a university institute.
When I came back to the Prespa Lake region in October 1996, I heard the terrible news. His daughter, in late pregnancy with her second child, died soon after her arrival at home from a heart attack. Her doctor in Denmark had warned her against the long automobile trip, because she had very high blood pressure during the pregnancy. I wanted to give my condolences to S., but he wasn't at home, or, if so, he didn't want to see me.
S. is one of many men in the Republic of Macedonia since my first visit in 1977 who have given me their time, their food, their shelter so that my anthropology could carry the weight of their varied experience in a balanced, symmetrical way, like the two piles of firewood on a donkey's saddle. In this essay, I have selected a couple of pieces from the pack to throw onto a small pile for the community. Of course, I ask myself: "What is happening in S.'s village today?" Ethnic war or contested identity?
I am grateful to my colleagues in Copenhagen, Finn Sivert Nielsen and Kirsten Rønne, for their helpful comments to drafts of this paper.
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