BEFORE OUR bombers lock on to that vague splotch (Baghdad) lying below them along a serpentine green line (the Tigris River) in the desert, I would like to list a few targets I hope they will miss, most especially my artist cousin Wedad Orfali.
Wedad is proprietor of the only privately owned art gallery in Iraq. I first met her in 1986 during my only visit to Baghdad when I was a guest, with 10 other American writers and poets, at an Iraqi-hosted literary festival.
Quite a character, a sort of Arab Gertrude Stein, Wedad Orfali had a home that was a salon for Iraqi artists, writers, musicians. Walls were covered, mosaic-like, with paintings, photographs, tapestries. At one point Wedad pointed proudly to some Marc Chagall originals. "I adore him," she said.
An accomplished artist of magical cityscapes, she treated me to a virtuoso performance of "Strangers in the Night," first on a zither and then on a piano whose keys seemed to have buckled in a rainstorm.
"Stranzhers een the nyyyeta!" she intoned, calling over her shoulder playfully as her legs pumped the pedals and her hands pounded the warped keys. Her husband Abu Abbas, a taciturn ex-diplomat who had retired the very day Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, looked at me as if I were a hapless victim, a gleam in his eyes over the rim of his demitasse.
He was wrong. With Wedad, it was love at first abrazo, at first wrong chord.
I had never heard of her, nor do any of my relatives come from Iraq. But when Nasira al-Sadoun, an Iraqi novelist and bookstore owner, caught my last name at the al-Merbid festival, she insisted that we meet.
About 60, short, but tall of voice and wide of smile, Wedad was convinced we were related. When I protested that my grandfather Orfalea was born in Syria and was Christian, she grabbed my wrist, sat me down in front of a dozen plates of mezza and told me she was studying about Urfa.
Urfa is in Turkish Armenia, and Wedad had it figured that we were all Armenians at one point and that Urfa was the motherland. Our lives in the Arab world were a wandering. "My dear, it's easy to figure," she squawked. "The Christians of our family went to Syria and the Moslems of our family went to Iraq." This was a most intriguing notion of family, and I believed it on the spot.
I also hope our bombers will miss Nasira al-Sadoun, whose bookstore features Melville and Hawthorne. Possessed (strangely, as was true of many Iraqis we met) of a white blotch in inky hair -- which bespoke of agony within denial -- Nasira's eyes were bituminous coal. Her novel, "If Shade Comes," is about a woman coming of age in a society of loosening strictures and of war. She suggested that "shade" meant "peace."
Clearly, there was a propaganda purpose in gathering 1,000 writers from all over the world to Baghdad -- the Iraqis at that time were fairly desperate in the senseless battle with Iran. There were the expected panegyrics against Khomeini and hymns to the greater honor and glory of Saddam, whose visage on billboards was so ubiquitious, pictured in garb so eclectic, as to be laughable.
Nevertheless, there also were moments of the real poetic thing. Kuwaiti poet Suad al-Sabbagh lambasted the al-Merbid festival itself -- "Our seats are bored with us" -- and called for a "homeland without secrets, prisons, executions." She attacked "dinosaur" Arab regimes -- and, amazing as it seems in recollection, might have been including Iraq itself; a police state gets no awards for freedom of speech, but Iraq did all right that day.
Exiled Syrian poet Ahmed Suleiman Ahmed hushed a huge crowd when he lamented, "We are a dead people, and there is no harm in burying the dead twice."
Baghdad itself was personified in many a poem we heard, a city standing endangered, tormented. And I think even now as we teeter on the brink of attacking the very country we were supporting then, it would be wrong to underestimate the pride poets from all over the Arab world evoked over the sacrifice Iraq made in shielding them from Khomeini. Wedad Orfali compared the ayatollah to Halagu, the Mongol invader who destroyed Baghdad in 1258.
Will we be seen any differently when we come bearing bombs?
Amid the almost feverish, yet genuine, hospitality of the Iraqi people, there were forboding signs. An ancient sculpture at Babylon of a lion pouncing on a man was replicated in modern design at the airport. A palpable tension and paranoia in the streets, arising from Iranian missile attacks and the Iraqi secret police, were brought home to me when a woman grabbed my camera and tried to smash it as I photographed a fruit vendor and his pomegranates. The bird-blue camouflage uniforms of Iraqi Pioneers, or boy scouts, on close inspection revealed themselves patterned with maps of the Arab world. That blue cloak and their fervent chant, "We will die for you, Saddam," seemed pathetic and sad.
When I brought up the subject of chemical weapons used against Iran, one frank official said, "Look. If the United States were invaded by Mexico, you would use any weapon at your disposal." A year later, though, Saddam gassed the Kurds -- his own people -- morally indefensible on any grounds. I declined a re-invitation to the al-Merbid festival, citing the horrific event at Halabja. At the end of my 1986 trip, we were taken to the war front near Khanaquin on the Iraq-Iran border. There an Iraqi general touched his heart, indicating the solace the presence of Americans had for his troops, and stunned us more with his statement, "We are fighting your war." A leather-faced Army corporal stared at me intensely with hazel-eyes. "My name is Abdul Wahab," he said quietly. "I have been fighting for seven years along 700 miles. I am an English teacher."
I think I know what he was saying; it's a question troops massed throughout the Gulf today are probably asking themselves too, under all the rhetoric: Why am I here? I think it was the subtext of the impatient GI responses Secretary of State James Baker received recently as he toured the dunes.
I do not mean to imply that war with Iraq should not be undertaken under any conditions, nor even that we should never countenance attacking first. I have neither the naivete nor the radical, courageous solitude of the total pacifist. Torture of hostages, for example, may be enough of a reason to go to war.
What I am saying is this: Among rulers, the history of vengeance and temerity is a rather common and bloody one; the history of foresight and forbearance more rare and worthy. Both the tyrant Saddam Hussein and the righteous George Bush seem by turns perilously lacking in forbearance and suffused with temerity.
As we slide toward war, I find myself drawn not just to precious geography, ancient ruins, but people I met four years ago and to whom I am now linked, who walk and breathe in a looming killing field. Human beings, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands, will suffer and die underneath bombardment, in a chemical mist or nuclear fire. They will be from many nations. Their lives and maiming will be linked to millions more -- relatives, friends, anonymous avengers. Their dreams will be undreamed, their children-to-be unborn. Most of these will be Iraqis no fonder of Saddam Hussein than we are.
And so, calling up the faces of Wedad Orfali and Abdul Wahab, the dutiful, haunted corporal, I would like to ask our president, burdened in this solemn hour more than anyone of us can realize: Have we yet done all we can to avert this horror? Is it clear that we will not destroy or unleash more than we will rescue? It isn't yet to me. And I don't think I'm alone.
Meanwhile I regard Wedad Orfali's Bagdad, a better Bagdad than Saddam's or ours.
Washington poet Gregory Orfalea is author of "The Capital of Solitude" and co-editor of "Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry."