August 9th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

The future of the "Ground Zero mosque"

Last summer's big news story was the broiling controversy over the so-called "Ground Zero mosque". It was on the front page of papers around the world. It led all the newscasts. And protests against the project were furious and frequent. But then the story seemingly died away. The man at the center of the media storm, Imam Feisal Rauf is no longer involved.

But the man who is truly at the center of the project who brought Rauf to it is still sticking with it. He is Sharif El-Gamal, the real estate developer, who came up with the idea in the first place. He joined me this past Sunday to tell the full story of the "Ground Zero mosque". Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Fareed Zakaria: So let's start with the beginning. What made you think about doing something like this? You're a real estate developer.

Sharif El-Gamal: You know, I'm an American. I was born in Brooklyn to a Polish Catholic mother, to an Egyptian father. And I've lived around the world and I've moved back to New York when I was 18 years old. And when I moved back to the city, it became home. New York became home for me.

And after 9/11, I decided to reconnect with my faith. I did not grow up in – in a very religious home, but the seed of my identity and my faith was planted in me. And after 9/11, I decided to start praying in a mosque which was on Warren Street. And when I started praying there, there were several thousand people that were praying on – on the streets, on the stairwells of this building, and it was -

Fareed Zakaria: The mosque was – the rooms were filled.

Sharif El-Gamal: It was – it was over capacity. The place was just filled. And I made an intention, I made a decision that I wanted to help my community buy a building in Lower Manhattan. And after looking at dozens of buildings and bearing in mind that real estate in Manhattan, you know, Manhattan is one of the most competitive real estate market places in the world. It's not like you can just pick a building and say, I want to buy that building. There are so many sophisticated operators here trying to acquire assets. So after looking at dozens of buildings from – from 2002 to 2006 and buildings that we lost and we couldn't acquire, I finally stumbled upon 4551 Park Place. And when we finally acquired the real estate in July of 2009, in May of 2009, the mosque on Warren Street got evicted, and the building that they were in got sold, and several thousand Muslims got displaced. And there was a major crisis in Lower Manhattan, because there were thousands of people now literally praying on the street.

Fareed Zakaria: But then you decided at some point, well, maybe this should be more than a mosque. What made you think of that?

Sharif El-Gamal: In 2006, I – I met my wife-to-be, who was an American girl that I saw on the corner of 23rd and 6th then asked out to dinner. A couple of – eight months later we're married, and she's a Muslim. We have two beautiful daughters. And my daughter Sarah is about a year and a half at that point. And I'm thinking to myself, I want to teach her how to swim. We live on the Upper West Side and we joined the Jewish Community Center.

And every time that I would walk into the JCC, I would say to myself, why don't Muslims have a community center like this open to all people? And that's what Park51 is. Park51 is a – is a community center.

Fareed Zakaria: And designed where it is because that's what where the demand was, that was where the community was and they had been displaced.

Sharif El-Gamal: Yes. There were several different – several interesting coincidences that happened during this point of time. One, we never knew that Lower Manhattan was the fastest growing residential neighborhood in Manhattan and that there's close to 63,000 residents that live in Lower Manhattan today. And they don't have a true community center to serve them, to provide much-needed services, whether it's for children, adults or seniors.

Fareed Zakaria: This is all faiths?

Sharif El-Gamal: This is of all faiths. I mean, at the end of the day, you know, I'm a New Yorker. And there are JCCs and YMCAs all over the city, but there are no Muslim community centers. There is no Muslim- led project where we as Muslims are stepping up and building a community center giving back to the people. And it's open to all people. It doesn't judge you based on your religion, based on your faith. It's here to provide a service and – and to provide facilities and programs to the residents of the neighborhood.

Fareed Zakaria: So when you find this location, Park51, at that point do you focus on where it is in relation to Ground Zero?

EL-GAMAL: No. It never crossed our mind. We never – we never associated the two and we still don't. You know, when we – when we decided that we were going to start understanding this idea of building a community center, one of the first things that we did is we started with the Mayor's office. We started the outreach with the commissioners and the Mayor's office, and then we – and incredible, incredible receptiveness and approval, and it was incredible.

Meeting after meeting after meeting from – from September of '09 until April of '10 we met every single local elected official or person that mattered in Lower Manhattan.

Fareed Zakaria: When did you realize that this was turning into a controversy? What was the first inkling?

Sharif El-Gamal: Well, in May of last year, we voluntarily at that point when we finished our road trip with all the local elected officials, decided voluntarily to go into the community board. And we went into the community board voluntarily and shared with them this idea of building a community center. And on that first meeting, 16 people voted unanimously in favor of this project and these are all non-Muslim people, and they were excited that Muslims were going to build a community center in Lower Manhattan to serve all – all New Yorkers and all of Lower Manhattan, which was the intention behind this project.

We then followed that up with another full board meeting of 50. And when we went into that room, you know, at that next community board meeting, I invited my wife down to come. And I got there a few minutes after her and she was just in tears. And when I saw her in tears, I said what happened? And she goes, Sharif, you're not going to believe what's going on in that room. The people thought that I came here to protest against the Muslims, because they didn't realize that she was a Muslim because we don't fit whatever stereotype people have of Muslims. And when -

Fareed Zakaria: What was going on in that room?

Sharif El-Gamal: When I walked into that room, there was close to 700 people that were protesting what we were doing, and for the first time in my life – I – I had never seen, I'd never been discriminated against. I'd never seen that hate or that fear or that ignorance. I mean, I've never seen anything like that before in my life, and I was – I was scared.

And at that point, we made a commitment – you know, personally, I made a commitment that I would do whatever it took as a – as a businessman, as a human being to make this project a reality.

And, you know, this past year for me has really been about listening, has really been about listening and – and going back to basics and trying to understand that – that there's so much work ahead of us, that there's so much misconceptions about who we are as Muslims, what our faith, what our practice, what our belief system is. Criminals have stolen our identity almost in a way, and they've defaced our – our faith.

Fareed Zakaria: So you got out – get out of that room with the 700 angry people. And at that point, it just snowballs and it gets latched on to by all kinds of political figures. Were you – were you prepared for that kind of an onslaught?

Sharif El-Gamal: No, no. I'm a New Yorker. This is my city, and all we wanted to do was we wanted to build a facility that is based on who we are as Muslims, as Americans to give back to our city, to create jobs, to create hundreds of construction jobs, to create hundreds of full-time jobs once the facility is open, to create over 500 part-time jobs. We were thinking of a way of revitalizing our neighborhood, creating, stimulating our economy, and providing services to our neighbors.

Fareed Zakaria: Did you get threatened?

Sharif El-Gamal: I did. A lot of scary things happened in – a lot of very, very scary things have happened. A lot of very scary things have happened.

Fareed Zakaria: Did it ever make you think to yourself why do I need this?

Sharif El-Gamal: Because every time that I would look in my two little daughters, I would say that I don't – I want the world to be a better place for them, and that we have a responsibility that we – we just got subjected into this, but we have a responsibility now to reclaim who we are. Because if people knew who we were and if people knew that every time a mosque or an Islamic facility is built, it cleans up a neighborhood.

This is statistically speaking across the 50 states that it becomes a beacon of light. And unfortunately, criminals have – have taken control of the narrative today. And that's what was the – that was the impact of what we had gotten.

Fareed Zakaria: Will you be able to build the project?

Sharif El-Gamal: That's going to be a function of the community. This project is going to be as small or as big as ultimately the community decides. We are committed right now to building – one of the buildings we're 100 percent committed to. And it's going to take a shape and a form dependent of what the community comes back to us with.

Fareed Zakaria: You're not backing down? EL-GAMAL: From doing the right thing? Backing down from doing the right thing, from providing first and foremost a place for people to pray, for Muslims to pray in Lower Manhattan after they've been displaced and then going a step further and trying to provide community facilities to a neighborhood that needs community facilities, backing down from doing the right thing?

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Topics: GPS Show • Islam • United States

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soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. Terry Washington

    yawn- the "Ground Zero mosque"- which was never at Ground Zero or even a mosque for that matter-it was a proposed Interfaith centre with a small prayer room- calling that a"mosque" was a s much of a semantic error as referring to a chapel in a Roman Catholic hospital as a church. People argued that it should be situated "somewhere else"-but were coy as to where the "somewhere else" was to be in actuality- NIMBYism of the first order!

    August 9, 2011 at 5:16 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I'm afraid the Ground Zero will remian the centre of many a storm for a long while.

      August 9, 2011 at 9:19 am | Reply
      • Jason

        The Media is the one who wroded it as the "Ground Zero mosque" to sell advertisements which led to spreading Hate and Violence from many communities throughout New York and the one who took full advantage of that WERE THE TEA PARTY(Racist,Bigots..pretending to be for Americans but really for the rich right wing christian conservatives)who hijacked the peaceful proposal and turned it into a FOx News exclusive of hate

        August 9, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Peace

      This shows you how ignorant people can be. And it proves that sometimes the craziest, loudest and most ignorant people are the ones that seem to get heard, no matter how small that group may be.

      August 9, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
      • Stephen

        I agree Peace. Like the ignorant and immature People that object to a greatly extended Lifespan even if it means extra Healthy Years and claim the Aging will never be "cured"or conquered. I have several Facebook and Twitter Friends that are doing professional research on Aging and Life Extension and they all agree that there will be a major Life Extension and Anti-Aging revolution between 2020 and 2025.And to Me,a greatly extended Lifespan is an opening up of new oppertunities and experiences.I can have more Time to change,"grow",and explore many new things. People that object to Life Extension were probably brought up with lots N. lots of ignorance,hypocracy,and stupidity.

        August 10, 2011 at 2:06 am |
  2. barbaragiltner

    When You plan to move from your home in the next few years dont refinance your mortgage, use tools from "123 Refi" they make it easy to check your current loan and provide you the solution

    August 9, 2011 at 5:55 am | Reply
    • jon

      You stole my thunder barbara! That's exactly what I was going to say, and was surprised no one had the gall to bring it up in this article about the Ground Zero mosque.

      August 9, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Reply
  3. crystalmille

    To address the concern as to weather or not online students get proper instruction the answer is, YES! I am confident that I will be more than ready to teach once I earn my degree from "High Speed University".

    August 9, 2011 at 6:38 am | Reply
  4. Delex.

    Ride on Sheriff! It's a free world. After all, the U.S is home for all. This is nothing compared to what others enjoy as privileges in the country. Muslims all over the world are behind you with prayers, this I assure you. Criminals and their acts cannot deface or retard Islam, Insha Allah!!!

    August 9, 2011 at 7:47 am | Reply
    • Stephen

      Sorry Delex,but no it's NOT a Free World! The World is basically owned by the "Banksters"and the Fedral Reserve.But there is a very ethical and well thought out proposal for a radically new Economic system that could change all that and make the World a whole LOT of a better place.It's called a Resource-Based Economy and is promoted by the Venus Project,the Zeitgeist Movement,and the Free World Charter.A Resourse-Baced Economy is an Economic system where all goods are freely and evenly distributed and all services are given WHITHOUT the use of Money,Credits,or Barter.It has absolutly NO "Upper Class",Middle Class",or "Lower Class".

      August 10, 2011 at 1:44 am | Reply
      • NonZionist

        Such a large change seems impossible. But 25 years ago, the fall of the Soviet Union seemed impossible - yet it happened. And 10 years ago, the fall of the U.S. seemed impossible - yet it is happening.

        August 10, 2011 at 11:15 am |
      • NonZionist

        Change happens inevitably, because the present system is built on SAND. The sand takes the form of DEBT-based currency. Instead of coining our money directly, we BORROW our money from a private banking consortium - the misnamed "Fed" - then we borrow still more just to pay the interest the consortium charges on the money we've already borrowed.

        This results an an unsustainable exponential growth in debt. I.e., the current system, established in the dead of night on Christmas Eve on 1913, is DESIGNED to fail.

        And when it does, people will start to google the rational alternative: Debt-FREE currency. Localities that have adopted it have prospered - see Guersney, for example.

        August 10, 2011 at 11:41 am |
      • Rita

        Thanks for your post, I will look into these projects, venus , zeitgeist and free world charter, makes good sense to me. I also have one thing to say about ethics...If this Sharif had any, he would not build that mosque in a building where the wheels of one of those planes touched before crashing into the world trade center...people are grieving, show some respect and put your ego to bed. There are many more displaced American mourning hearts who lost 3000 relatives then the displace muslims who lost that other mosque, just build it somewhere else, anywhere else.

        August 10, 2011 at 7:34 pm |
  5. peeeeeeepeeee

    whyyyyyy is the world so messed up

    August 9, 2011 at 9:33 am | Reply
  6. FranticRed

    I am disgusted by the vitriol and ignorance that has surrounded this project. If it were a synagogue or a church nothing would have been said. The fight against it comes from Islamaphobia, plane and simple. We are supposed to be a country where all are accepted. What happened to us? When did wingnuts gain so much influence?

    August 9, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
    • Mike

      You ask a question which you already know the answer to: When Islamic wingnuts flew two planes into the twin towers...
      Just because you can say anything you want does not make it correct.

      Same thing for the ignorant people who think Islamic law is all about attacking the West, does it make it right? No, but it is what it is, and until BOTH sides are educated as to why one side sees it that way, it will remain so.

      Mike A
      Land O Lakes, FL

      August 9, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • Godfrey

      Had the United Methodist Church or the Conservative Movement Had anything to do with 9/11, you can bet there would be an outrage such as this. As it is, neither Methodists, Conservative, nor Unitarians were found to be in the employ of UBL.

      August 9, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Reply
    • Lyndall

      You mean I don\'t have to pay for expert aidcve like this anymore?!

      January 2, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • lfjoum

      Sc2SRg slqjesqbsnwk

      January 3, 2012 at 6:12 am | Reply
    • xrlzwr

      50EHfw bboqmimsnzxa

      January 4, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  7. emmbee

    CNN... would love to have read these details during the actual controversy.

    August 9, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Reply
    • oldboldgold

      When the market was crashing yesterday... CNN was saying SELL UNTIL YOU CAN SLEEP AT NIGHT. Today, it is BUY. CNN is schizophrenic in this, as in all, matters.

      August 9, 2011 at 8:29 pm | Reply
      • Stephen

        Well there should not be a stock market in the FIRST place! Have You ever heard the saying "Money is the root of all Evill?"Most People do not see that the Worldwide Monetary System is holding Us all back and how utterly corrupt it actually IS! THAT is why I support the Venus Project,the Zeitgeist Movement,and the Free World Charter and advocate for a Resourse-Based Economy that uses no Money,Credits,or Barter.In a World without Money,Credits,or Barter the word "poor"would become meaningless and everyone would have a much BETTER standard of Living and a much BETTER quality of Life.

        August 10, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  8. gene cassese

    Reguardless of who made this project public,Lets first put things in order, who allowed this project to be sold for this project ,and the real culprit is CON EDISON ,they owned this property ,now as far as freedom ,thats a right we as Americans have. What about respect for all the lifes lost.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • word?

      really did you even read the article??...The builder is an American just like you!! This man sounds like he loves his faith, his family, his country, and want to contribute to his community. Comments like yours belong in a age of ignorance I hope gets wiped out of existence, because while claiming to love your country you only love yourself and your ideas...listen to yourself and listen to what that man has to say and ask yourself...who is speaking from love and compassion, and who is speaking from a place of intolerance?

      August 9, 2011 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  9. Richard

    Why do they keep relating 9/11 to Islam? All of the evidence indicates that islamists had nothing to do with the attacks that were in fact carried out by treasonous elements within the US government. Why doesn't CNN get on the ball and start talking about all of the highly-qualified experts and groups that are calling for a new investigation? The 3 WTC towers could only have been brought down by explosives.

    August 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Will

      You are very stupid, and I find your comments offensive, just because you have the freedom to write something does not mean you should. Exactly like this building, just because it is legal to build a mosque there does not mean one should be built. I took a day off work yesterday and walked through lower Manhattan, this building is 2 blocks from the Freedom Tower site, I would call that Ground Zero... At best, Mr El-Gamal is being ignorantly inflammatory, at worst he is trying to provoke another religious battle in Lower Manhattan.

      August 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Reply
      • Kamran

        Repeat after me: "It is a Community Center, NOT A MOSQUE". Sure it does have a small Muslim prayer room, but that doesn't make it a mosque. Moron.

        August 9, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
      • Jason

        Will you're the Ignorant one who is uneducated and if this were 50 years ago you would be the one to slaughter the J ews and this were 100 years ago you would want African Americans in Slavery, you're the problem with the U.S. and clearly shows that our country lacks in education from your comment, you are he perfect poster boy for education reform

        August 9, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
      • Pharos

        From the article: "And there was a major crisis in Lower Manhattan, because there were thousands of people now literally praying on the street."
        So how does this 'community center' intend to handle this problem?
        With a mosque. You moron.

        August 10, 2011 at 3:19 am |
    • Godfrey

      Richard, can I call you Dick? Anyway, Mr. Conspiracy-Breath, the moon is really not made of cheese. Chocolate does not cause acne. Oswald realty did it, and bin dirtbag was responsible for 9/11. I do wish there were a better say this, because after all, you can believe what you like, but the term that best suits your mental disorder is, "Whack Job."

      August 9, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Reply
    • Max

      Rich, go see a doctor! Better yet hang yourself, because one can't go on living with convictions like yours!

      August 9, 2011 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • NonZionist

      We're told that 19 Muslim Supermen who couldn't fly a Cesna CONSPIRED for years and then, by some magic, defeated all of the defenses of the biggest military power in history. This is the Official Conspiracy Theory (OCT) that we're all supposed to believe in. The people who told us this tale are the same people who lied us into creating a trillion-dollar holocaust in Iraq.

      When some people look at the FACTS and start to QUESTION the OCT, gullible Americans denounce THEM as "Conspiracy Theorists"! Could the sheep possibly be any more brainless?!

      When ARE we going to get around to INVESTIGATING 9/11?

      If someone steals $100 from a convenience store, we have an investigation, we preserve the crime scene, we collect evidence, we ask about motive, we look for accomplices. But when 3,000 Americans are murdered, the parties with the most to gain simply TELL us what we are supposed to think, while they dismantle the crime scene, dispose of the evidence, block the investigation, and stall even the underfunded congressional whitewash. The victims of 9/11 deserve better.

      August 10, 2011 at 10:57 am | Reply
  10. Kabuli

    Why call it the Cordoba Center then . . . an inflammatory name? Gee didn't realize it was so close to Ground Zero? Why not convert BEFORE 9-11? Hmmmm . . look at me!

    August 9, 2011 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Jay Bell

      I realize it's a little after the fact, but I did just find this "interview" with the developer while researching something else. Mr. Gamal seems a little hard to believe when he claims that he never associated the building of a muslim community center in this location with Ground Zero, not only because someone who lives in the outer reaches of space could not miss the connection, but because he states that the receptiveness of the Mayor's office was "incredible". Why would he find it incredible, especially if there had been a mosque previously at a nearby location? Reports since this one have stated that the site is now mainly used as a Mosque and any programs that were started have been abandoned because of lack of interest. I don't believe that muslims in general are responsible for the 9/11 attack, but for God's sake, building a muslim community center where just recently a piece of landing gear has been found is a big F*** You to every American.

      October 11, 2013 at 10:03 am | Reply
      • Jay Bell

        Kabuli, awojoone, and everyone else who mentioned the previously considered name for this ill conceived project, the Cordoba Center is absolutely correct. It is a highly inflammatory name which refers to the slaughter of Spanish Christians by Muslims. I don't understand why an intelligent man like Mr. Zakaria would not think to pose the many great questions asked by the commenters here during this Q&A or even seek out an interview with him. Perhaps he wanted to leave some meat on the bone for his readers.

        October 11, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  11. Chris

    I don't know why the developers chose the name Cordoba, but it could be a reference to the area in Spain which was known as an area of tolerance during Muslim rule. Anyway, they changed the name to Park 51. Think first before writing. Saying this building is inflammatory is like saying a YMCA is inflammatory because a crazy Christian guy in Norway shot a bunch of people. It makes no sense. I will pray for you that you learn tolerance and pray for peace in New York between Christians and Muslims.

    August 10, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
    • sicelo nxumalo

      Chris you are a blind man! plain and simple

      August 10, 2011 at 5:41 am | Reply
  12. Michael

    It doesn't matter what anyone believes in, in this country, or any other for that matter. Nothing happens in this world without the powers that be making the final call on any situation. They are, banking systems, corporate and manufacturing systems, and any other group that supports the top two percent. As long as that percentage rules the decision making process in the world, nothing can be changed. It's about keeping the common man, woman, and child fighting amongst themselves, so that the heads of the world's financial structure can wreap the benefits.

    August 10, 2011 at 3:40 am | Reply
    • Godfrey

      Michael, if you are going to make a comment that begs relevance, please make certain spell correctly. "Wreap" is not spelled with the letter, 'w.'
      reap

      reap (rep) verb
      reaped, reap·ing, reaps

      verb, transitive

      1.To cut (grain or pulse) for harvest with a scythe, sickle, or reaper.
      2.To harvest (a crop).
      3.To harvest a crop from: reaping a field.
      4.To obtain as a result of effort: She reaped large profits from her unique invention.

      verb, intransitive

      1.To cut or harvest grain or pulse.
      2.To obtain a return or reward.

      [Middle English repen, from Old English ripan.]

      Synonyms: reap, garner, gather, glean, harvest. The central meaning shared by these verbs is “to collect”: reap grain; garner compliments; gathering mushrooms; glean information; harvested rich rewards.

      Excerpted from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from Lernout & Hauspie Speech Products N.V., further reproduction and distribution restricted in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

      August 10, 2011 at 5:04 am | Reply
      • Godfrey

        In addition, I should fall upon my pen. I apologize for leaving out 'to' in the infinitive construct. Mea Maxima Culpa.

        August 10, 2011 at 5:06 am |
  13. awojoone

    cordoba refers to victory putting that comm. center IS AN INSULT to every one who lost a family member or friend on that fateful day. Screw the muzzies build it in sauddi arubya NOT my home town. By any name its a haven for terrorists and asszholes.

    August 10, 2011 at 3:49 am | Reply
  14. john sinn

    I was at the Community Board meetingand the room didn't hold more than 200 people at that. The vote was 19 for, 1 against and 11 abstentions (which count as 'no' votes). Hardly a landslide. Mr Gamal is nothing but a sleazy real-estate Donald Trump wannabe. He was convicted for beating a tenant of his brothers for not paying rent. He's doesn't pay his taxes and he has a history of lies and unfulfilled promises. This guy is a con man using the unsuspecting, innocent, well meaning Muslims as a front. He should be ashamed.

    August 10, 2011 at 10:02 am | Reply
  15. NonZionist

    When are we going to get around to investigating 9/11?

    And why was my previous comment not post?

    August 10, 2011 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • NonZionist

      If someone steals $100 from a convenience store, we have an investigation, we preserve the crime scene, we collect evidence, we ask about motive, we look for accomplices. But when 3,000 Americans are murdered, the parties with the most to gain simply TELL us what we are supposed to think, while they dismantle the crime scene, dispose of the evidence, block the investigation, and stall even the underfunded congressional whitewash. The victims of 9/11 deserve better.

      August 10, 2011 at 10:49 am | Reply
  16. Michael

    Godfrey, thankyou for correcting my spelling, and definations to? Boy am I graced. As always, the content of what people say gets lossed from the arrogant who believe that chatter is more important than action.These comments fell into the areas of spite, and mean spirited reactions. Keep fighting among yourselves, you subspecies. That way, you can make yourself feel better about your pointless existance and keep your rotten behavior and and all that you believe in on the surface. Thats how you'll keep from ever dealing with the depressing realization of your life. Thanks, Brain surgeon;

    August 18, 2011 at 7:02 am | Reply

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