DETROIT -- What are they feeling? Fear, rage, despair, defiance, humiliation, paranoia, shock, confusion, and even a perverse kind of puffery and pride. It's the no man's land of the middle. But this is trying to tell emotion in the abstract.

So first a poem, and then a letter.

Her name is Intissar Ann Alkafaji, and the night the bombing started, she never went to sleep, barely let her eyes go off the TV screen. That was her birthplace by the Tigris lighting up like a pinball machine. Her 64-year-old mother, seven of her brothers and sisters, her cousins, her nephews and nieces, old teachers, childhood friends -- they were all there in Baghdad, and she was here, 6,200 miles away, safe in her rich suburban Michigan home, and were any of them breathing now? She pictured them trying to get out from under burning rubble. Her mind galloped away from her. She kept dialing the telephone numbers she knew wouldn't go through; there was a strange solace in it.

At dawn she threw on some clothes, drove the 20 or so miles to her office, switched on the answering service, locked the doors, sat down and began writing poetry. She did almost nothing else for the next 12 hours but scribble word images. She named it "Christmas Tree and Fourth of July Fireworks." It all just fell out. She had never tried to write a poem before -- criminal lawyers don't sit in their offices on the ninth floor of the Ford Building in downtown Detroit writing poems. Somehow it was as if only the found poet in a 39-year-old woman could understand this crushing lit-up thing America had made of her homeland.

But of course America was her homeland too, had been for a long time. Which was her pain. Which was her poem.

She addressed it to her nephew, Haider, and the reason is that 2 1/2 years ago, on her last visit back, Haider, then just learning to talk, then able to speak a kind of pidgin English he'd picked up from his Detroit auntie, had come to her room early on the morning of her departure, had climbed into her bed, had said, "Hum sweet hum. That is where you are going today, Intissar, to your hum sweet hum America."

She had said those words the night before as she'd tucked him in: "Tomorrow, Haider. I have to leave you. For my beautiful home sweet home America."

Haider's father was at home then, that summer of 1988. He ran the family business, which was designing the interiors of motorcars. But of course that was before waves of American F4-G Wild Weasels started rolling in over the Saudi desert, before the dictator next door found himself in need of more bodies. Which is why Haider's father, at 42, is today a conscripted soldier in Saddam's army.

And these are lines from Intissar Alkafaji's poem of Jan. 17, 1991:

My Little Haider

... Were you screaming, clinging to your mother's arms?

Did you scream the name of God in despair? Did you call out for dad and he wasn't there?

Did your little two-year-old hand attempt to lift the brick on your mother's face?

There's also a letter. It was written shortly after "Christmas Tree and Fourth of July Fireworks," not by Intissar Ann Alkafaji, but by one of her daughters. The daughter's name is Sahar Alkafaji. She's 15. She goes to Mercy High. She loves Madonna. She's crazy about Big Macs. You get the picture.

The letter was written to the president of the United States. It was put down in blue ballpoint on a piece of lined loose-leaf. And a 15-year-old wrote: "Dear Mr. Bush: This is not a war between countries, it is a war between Saddam's selfishness mixed with your overwhelming amount of greed and lies. ... If you succeed in making this happen {the killing of my family} I would like to let you know that I will hate you. I will fight you until I die, as every other Arab will. And when I die, there will be someone after me that will also hate you. Just remember one thing, Mr. Bush. Iraqis will fight you forever."

So far the letter hasn't been mailed to Washington.

So far Sahar Alkafaji's mother -- who through this whole Kafka dream can still say she loves America, if not its leaders, certainly its people -- has been unable to confirm whether any of her Baghdad family is alive. On the tube the other night she thought she recognized a building that is four down from where her widowed mother lives. Most of the building wasn't there.

A Muslim American woman, who'd prefer thinking of herself as cool-headed and rational, has practiced little law for the last month. She comes to her office and waits. Sometimes Intissar Alkafaji fears she's losing her mind.

"I have no doubt some of them are gone," she says. "I know it. With that much bombing, how could some of them not be gone? I don't care what they are saying in Washington about hitting only military targets. My intuition, my heart, is telling me something else."

She tells you this in her office one afternoon about 10 days ago. Her voice is coming from the other side of a desk in dull flat tones. All around her, in tasteful frames, are pictures of her family -- those here, those there.

That was 10 days before the world -- and Intissar Alkafaji -- learned that a U.S. Stealth fighter had dropped early-morning laser-guided bombs on a reinforced concrete structure in suburban Baghdad, and that scores and perhaps hundreds had died, and that many of those killed were women and children, in a building the Iraqis swore was only a civilian air-raid shelter but which the Pentagon fiercely insisted was a military command-and-control center.

The arguments raged.

And the woman in Michigan? There are no arguments for her. "Think of it this way," she says. "Part of my taxes are killing my own people. It's an irony that's so hard to bear."

The Diverse Minority

If you want to touch the cultural contradictions and deep emotional turmoil of Arabness in the Western Hemisphere in the fourth week of a weird war, then come here, to North America's largest community of Arab Americans, here to Henry Ford's vast, decaying, potholed, preternaturally gray, and yet somehow oddly appealing automotive village of 4.6 million people, 250,000 of whom have Arab blood in them, be it Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, Iraqi.

The Iraqis, like the Palestinians or Yemenis or Syrians, didn't come to Detroit dreaming of taking over convenience stores or gas stations. They came -- like Germans and Poles and Italians and Czechoslovaks; like every other nationality who ever arrived at the shores of this 18th-century French fur outpost -- dreaming of getting on, getting rich, at Chevy Gear and Axle, at Chrysler Assembly, at the Rouge. That's the history of Detroit in the 20th century.

The Rouge? To a Detroiter it's an instantly understood word. Once the Rouge Plant was the largest factory on Earth -- 98,000 Ford workers spread over 1,200 Dearborn acres, sending it on down the line. Nowadays the work force at the Rouge limps in at 14,000. The Rouge is where they made the Mustang. But the Rouge is still a soul-stirring sight, rising up out of lowland off the freeway, all those coke ovens and foundries and assembly sheds. Only now the lion meows. These days an Arab is more likely to find his fortune in 24-hour stop-and-go food marts. In Detroit these are often called "party stores," as if to enforce a terrible sense of false gaiety.

Detroit's Arab Americans: Some have been here for years, some arrived last week. Some have never held a pencil before, some are bankers and physicians and attorneys on the ninth floor of the Ford Building. And yet ... these days, what they will all tell you, and likely as not tell you heatedly, is that they feel they're suspect just for having Arab blood.

One of the paradoxes about Detroit is that the thing that makes it so rich -- its amazing ethnicity -- is also the thing that seems to conspire to keep it down, keep it fractured and forever polarized.

"Detroit is so transparent you can almost hear it ticking," Joyce Carol Oates once said. She used to live in Detroit. She said that after the '67 riots scorched through. Because Detroit is a city where races seem bent on murdering each other.

City of Seething Resentments

The sky's just as you remember -- unpainted canvas, pulled low. Coming in from the airport on I-94, this billboard: UAW COUNTRY. STAND UP FOR AMERICA. The police have already removed the billboard near Ford Road that appeared the day the bombing in the Persian Gulf started. It was big block white letters on a field of black: THE ONLY GOOD DICTATOR IS A DEAD DICTATOR -- MITCHELL MARKS. Nobody could figure out who Mitchell Marks was, but his philosophy got on the wires.

So did the torching of a Jordanian American party store at Army and Crawford. The headline in the Free Press said: "Arson Called Evidence of Anti-Arab Feelings." It wasn't the first torching since the gulf war began, although in truth the outbreak of what psychologists and criminologists speak of as "hate crimes" and "frustration crimes" has been far lower than what many people were bracing for, not least the Arab Americans themselves. So far the tension seems to be seething just under the surface, as in an Elmore Leonard story.

Was this one a hate crime? Hard to know.

You get in your car and go down to Army and Crawford to stand amid the charred brick and busted water pipes of the Maha Market to ask 26-year-old Ayed Faraj why he thinks it happened. The young owner is overweight and has a sorrowful face and no overcoat on. Behind him, fire inspectors are picking through the debris, trying not to soil their shoes.

Ayed Faraj, Jordanian born, citizen of the U.S.A., says only this, twice: "Nobody ever gave me threats before. What did I have to do with this war?"

So far they haven't brought in a culprit. So far they haven't brought in the National Guard, which is what Detroit Mayor Coleman Young asked for two days after the Roman candles first blazed in Baghdad. Young was worried about "backlash." The governor turned down the request. Some people felt Young was cynically trying to manipulate the budget: If a "state of emergency" could be justified, wouldn't that argue against a cutting of funds by a new administration in Lansing? That's Detroit, byzantine and imponderable all the way.

A new survey lists this city as the worst-run big metropolis in America. Hardly seems like news.

Fact: Chrysler's earnings plunged 81 percent in 1990. When the country gets a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia. That's an old Michigan saying.

If Washington stands for the windowless corridors of power, for a strange sanitization of our techno-horrid 20th-century nightmares, then Detroit, the mythic lunch-bucket place that once put the whole globe on wheels, is the city that just bleeds the blues. You can count on it. Not for nothing did Motown and other soulful music find its key of C here.

By 7 o'clock at night streets in downtown Detroit are so deserted you'd think the air-raid sirens had gone off. In a way they have.

"Growing up in Detroit I found nothing in the world as beautiful as the quality of light that descended into the streets in late afternoon in beginning October," the Michigan poet Philip Levine once wrote. He was talking of the middle and late '50s, the '50s of postwar automobile big-fin madness, before Vietnam, before JFK and Dallas, before oil embargoes and dollar-a-gallon gas and race riots and Volkswagens and proxy wars in Third World countries, a time when anything seemed possible not just for Detroit but for America. Woodward Avenue then was one of the grand cruising avenues in the hemisphere. Today Woodward Avenue leading out of downtown is a boarded-up thing that glitters like broken glass. Porno video shops spiked here and there amid all the strange emptiness.

In fact, so much of Detroit and its bordering environs have this queer feeling of emptiness. Up on Warren Avenue there's a graveyard of buses, a startling sight: scores of city buses, rusted, windows out, just shells. Where did Detroit's density go? It seems a physical as well as spiritual torpor. Perfect urban rot, dying of the American dream. People who worked hard for a whole lifetime deserve a whole lot better.

People have their stake and dreams. Not everybody gets to get out, not everybody wants to get out. Some came here from thousands of miles away.

A man is talking. He is standing in the Arabian Gulf Market, which is on West Vernor in Dearborn in a tawdry little shopping strip composed of, among others, the Red Sea Restaurant and the Lebanon Pastry and the United Yemen Warehouse Clothing. The man is an Egyptian. His name is M.A.B. El-Gothamy. He is unshaven, disheveled, fatigued-looking. But there is an odd elegance about him. Maybe it's the trace of English accent. M.A.B. El-Gothamy is an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist. The Arabian Gulf Market, where he is shopping, is fragrant with grape leaves, with goat's milk cheese, with Egyptian spinach, with orange blossom water, with Sultan Tombac.

"You have to flatten them ... that's all," he says. He means Iraqis. "This is the greatest country on Earth. ... Something will have to be sacrificed for something else. It's always the way. This man, Hussein, he is a madman. There are many fundamentalists over there. He may stampede them into some kind of panic. I think you have to go in and finish it quickly. It's sad but necessary. The problem, you see, is the American armies are being too kind."

At this last, the eye-ear-nose-and-throat man erupts into laughter, the utter ribald paradox of it all.

Several doors down, in an Arab coffee shop that's smoky and fluorescent-lit, men huddle at cards. You stand on the walk outside and stare in through greasy windows. The CNN correspondent on the out-of-focus TV in the rear of the room is talking to an audience of curled backs.

Prayers for Peace "Bigotry thrives on slanderous stereotypes," an editorialist at the New York Times wrote earlier this fall, when it looked inevitable that America would go to war with Iraq. "The crazed Arab is today's version of the Teutonic hordes and the yellow peril. ... To hold a diverse world responsible for a single leader's misdeeds traduces an entire people."

Watch them pray. The "them" are people of about a dozen nationalities -- Lebanese, Algerian, Syrians, Yemenis, Palestinians. It is noonday in south Dearborn. Dearborn, which has always been the Ellis Island of the Arab world. Dearborn is said to have somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 Arabic-speaking people in its mostly white middle-class population of 90,000.

The imam is calling his faithful. An imam is an Islamic holy man. He's calling over a loudspeaker attached to the roof of his two-story mosque. It's part chant, part wail. You can hear it for blocks. The spooky sound stabs the freezing air. Five times a day the sheik or his designate will summon his people to prayer. What he's crying in Arabic is "Allah is great! Allah is great!"

"Please to remove your shoes," says a small man with a knotted visage. He has decided to trust you and let you have a look inside. He is a Yemeni. He has been in this country three months. He was touring around and then the war suddenly broke out. He's kneeling on a prayer mat about the size of a bathroom throw rug. His name is Nagib. He serves as a kind of keeper of the gate. Since he has no other place to live, Nagib is sleeping in the basement. Happily, he says.

"Praying five times a day keeps you away from many problems," he says. "It reminds you of what is good and what is bad."

They're coming now, converging from every direction, coming in their Reeboks and stocking caps, coming in their clunker cars barnacled with snow cinders, coming in their head scarves and ankle-length dresses, old men with canes, children, high school kids in letter jackets.

Each slips out of his shoes. There's something quietly beautiful just in this. They go up the stairs and align in rows in the great empty room. This room is carpeted wall-to-wall and has no furniture. There are line markers on the carpet as on a football field. These believers are facing east, toward Mecca. Mecca must seem so far away. There is a reading from the Koran. There is much bowing and praying. Now they are down on all fours. The service lasts about 15 minutes.

"They are finishing now," whispers Nagib. "They're asking God to stop this awful war."

How the Mayor Won Six years ago, the highly popular roly-poly mayor of Dearborn, Mike Guido, is thought to have seized the mayor's office largely on the strength of one brochure titled "Let's Talk About City Parks and the 'Arab Problem.' " He touched white middle-class xenophobic fears. Guido was running third in the primary race before the brochure; afterward he was the favorite. The brochure contained sentences like these: "Guido has had a problem with the so-called {Arab} leadership for years over what he terms their 'gimme, gimme, gimme' attitude... . Guido is not anti-Arab. He's not anti-anybody. But, he's definitely against a system and an attitude which threatens our neighborhoods, the value of our property and a darned good way of life under the disguise of 'cultural understanding.' "

The mayor denied then, denies now, that he was trying to further polarize his already racially polarized community. The brochure was misunderstood by the press, he says. It became a red herring. You spend a half-hour in Mike Guido's office and, likely as not, he'll charm the pants off you with his explanations.

"I read to them," he says. He is talking of Arab American children. "I go into the schools and read to our Arab American kids." Other night the mayor was at McDonald School in the northeast end visiting fifth-graders. "They did the ABCs of Dearborn. A was for Arab. M was for Mayor Guido, a great leader."

A Culture Besieged These days in Detroit you see a certain poster flapping from telephone poles, from bulletin boards in laundromats. The poster says: "I'd Fly 10,000 Miles to Smoke a Camel." There's a drawing of a figure on a camel, caught in cross hairs.

A clerk at a Dearborn motel -- she's a cheerful young woman of Mexican descent -- startles you one morning. The venom just comes out. You've told her offhandedly what you're in town trying to do. "They're obnoxious, they stink, they're dirty. They own all these gas stations, they come over here and make money off us, take our jobs. I hate them. I hated them before this war."

At 6 o'clock the night after the war started, Detroit's American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee got a call from a man who said he was ready to "come down with a high-powered rifle and do some serious damage."

The front door of the Arab American News -- the paper's offices are over a storefront on Michigan Avenue -- now has buzzer locks. Kay Siblani and her husband, Osama Siblani, constitute the bulk of the News's editorial staff. Their paper goes out across the country and is highly regarded. Osama Siblani has been vocal about FBI questioning of the Arab American community; it comes close to "harassment," he feels.

Says his wife: "I think it's been done {the FBI questioning} to try and silence the community, to keep the community from voicing its dissent against public policy."

She's not of Arab descent but is in this fight for recognition and respect all the way. Still, she is unafraid to say: "There is another side to all this, you know. I'm talking about a middle class of America living by the rules and getting screwed for it. The America they know is being taken away from them. These waves and waves of immigration coming to Dearborn -- it's very threatening to them. So many of these immigrants have lived in a war zone for more than a decade. They're not used to law and order. They'll double-park in front of a restaurant, a laundromat. It's as if the rules don't apply to them. This is a very long-standing problem in Dearborn."

Tyranny of a Stereotype "Let me tell you some of what it's about," says a captain in the Dearborn fire department with small undisguised savagery in his voice. His name is Donny Unis. He's 51. He was born here. He's of Lebanese descent. His father, who got to Michigan in '17, came because he heard about the phenomenal $5-a-day wage Henry Ford was willing to pay any hard-working man with a back and two arms. Donny Unis has never been to Iraq, doesn't really know many Iraqis. But he has Arab blood.

"The social dimensions of skin tone, okay" (he is holding out his arms with the sleeves of his sweater shoved up), "the heredity of big bugged eyes, okay" (he is bugging his eyes), "well, all of this, things we were born with, things we can't help, made us feel somehow, just growing up here, that we were inferior. The counselor in the schools saying, 'What do you mean, you're going to college, you're not going to college, you're going to work in a factory like your father.' My wife said to me the other day, 'Donny, it's not a question of Saddam Hussein, and whether he's a vile man or whether he's a halfway decent man, it's the old question of this attack on your Arab heritage. That's what's getting to you. If you do not stand up and protest that, then your whole life has no meaning.' "

Sympathy for the Immigrants Perhaps an outsider exaggerates things beyond what they are. Consider this recent letter to the editor in the Free Press: "I was outraged to learn that a fake bomb was placed in front of the door of a party store in my city. This was obviously done because the store is owned by Arab-Americans. I visit that store virtually seven days a week, and the family members who own and operate it are some of the finest people I know... . They left their native Iraq to find a life of peace and to escape intolerable conditions."

What happened was that three road flares had been tied together to look like sticks of dynamite. They'd been left at Max Liquor one Sunday morning after the war started. The store is owned by Iraqi Chaldeans, who are not Muslims but Roman Catholics. Max Liquor is in the wrongly named suburb of Garden City, between Inkster and Middlebelt. (There's such lovely word-poetry to Detroit street names.)

Bonnie Bunney, manager of Max Liquor, tabbing an emotion on her fingertips: "Ohmigod, Channel 2, 4, 7, 50, they were all here. My brother, he wouldn't go outside and talk to them. He said, 'I can't, I'm too embarrassed.' The kids make fun, you know. They call names. 'You're Arab.' The police blocked off the street. I saw it on TV. That man from the bomb squad -- he looked awful. That big suit on. All that day, the phone never stops ringing. People say, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. We are so ashamed for this to happen to you.' These are not even our customers. Just people calling us because they live in Garden City and feel bad."

The Arab American When he was a kid, growing up in Dearborn, he used to walk up Dix Avenue, turn a corner, and invariably get a speck of grit in his eye. He and his buddies used to call them "Ford bricks." They'd say, "Aw crap, just got hit with another brick from the Rouge." But then they'd laugh.

He was born here, loves Detroit. He's a member of New Detroit Inc., he's a Dearborn City Beautiful commissioner, he's the chairman of the Arab-American Voter Registration and Education Committee. His name is Joe Borrajo. His father came to America at 15 from Yemen. He's an English major from the University of Michigan. He works nights as a production technician at an industrial gas plant that's part of Union Carbide. In the Army, he was an MP.

He's talking to you on the job. The moon is full and pearly. He's got on a hard hat and ear mufflers. Outside the door, yellow clouds of vapor rise from stark white tubes the size of skyscrapers. There are 30 miles of pipeline going out of this plant. Despite all, Detroit is still the heart of the heart of the industrial beast.

Joe Borrajo says: "I think one of the healthy things in a person's psychological makeup is being able to know where you are from. Even if it wasn't a Middle Eastern war involving my heritage, I'd still be against it. War is an outdated means of trying to solve a problem. It's primitive. This line of reasoning, 'If you attack policy, you're not supporting our boys over there,' that's junk. I will not allow my loyalty to be questioned. I served honorably in the armed forces of this country. I am an American... . This country was founded on the idea of honest dissent. I see the armies of the United States killing my people, I want to scream, 'My God, stop it!' "