A few hours after President Bush went on television Thursday night to deliver his latest message about war with Iraq, a man with a scar on his left arm, another scar on the back of his head, a sore in his left ear and brown, blistering shoes was in downtown Amman, trying to deliver a message of his own.
"Dear Saeed," Nazem Jeeshani wrote on a piece of blue-lined paper, the beginning of a letter from a 33-year-old man to his brother. The writing was in Arabic, scribbled quickly because the car that takes letters across the border into Iraq once a week was leaving soon. "A wish of love and respect," he continued, and then he got to one of the main reasons he was writing: "Have you got feed for the goats?"
It was code.
Surely his brother would understand what he meant, that feed meant bullets and goats meant guns. But there was no way to know.
One brother was in Amman, one of the Jordanian capital's thousands of Iraqi migrants, and the other brother was in southern Iraq, in a house without a phone. Letters -- couriered into and out of Iraq once a week by taxi -- have been the way they have communicated about finances, about family matters and now about war.
Did Saeed understand that the war might begin next week? Had he heard Bush say, "Well, we're days away from resolving this issue at the Security Council"? Did he know about the cut-out sections of fence discovered between Iraq and Kuwait? So Jeeshani kept writing, hurriedly and obliquely, while around him dozens of other men did the same.
That was this morning in Amman, in the usual grimy place, a two-block stretch of old downtown where the street narrows into a curve and the buildings are tall enough to keep out the midmorning sun. Every Friday brings out the letter writers. But with war so close, which is to say the end of taxi service so close, the crowd on the sidewalk was noticeably large.
All were men. All wrote in Arabic. All wrote on thin sheets of paper spread over their thighs. And all had envelopes with blue and red borders and a stamp on the front that said "Par Avion," as if the taxis about to speed east across the desert might somehow lift into the sky.
"Three days," said a man named Hussein Ahmed Ali, about how long it would be before his brother would read the words "I miss you" and "I hope to see you as soon as things are stable," which he had written just before signing his name.
"What am I going to say?" said Ahmed Abdulzaher, 22, who grew up under the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and whose father was killed in battle, explaining why his letter avoided any mention of next week. "If there's war, there's war. We are used to it," he said, and wrote what he always writes, "I am sending $100. More will come later."
"My dear Mother," wrote Jawad Jibouri, 25, wondering what to say on the eve of a probable war to an elderly woman whose son left her for the chance to earn $120 a month working in a factory making cement blocks. "I pass my wishes to the entire family," he decided to write next. Followed by, "It's been cold." Followed by, "We ran out of heating oil, but now things are better because the weather has been warmer." Followed by, "I will be in contact with you next month." Followed by, "God willing."
One by one, letters were finished, signed, sealed into envelopes and handed to drivers, along with $1 that guaranteed personal delivery to a recipient's door. By midday, only a few people were left, including Jeeshani, who was describing a life shaped almost entirely by war.
He rolled up his left sleeve to the elbow, revealing a scar running nearly the length of his inner arm. That was from being shot during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, he said.
He rolled down his sleeve, reached behind his head and pushed his hair away; that one, he said, came during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when a U.S. plane came in low and fast where he was standing and dropped a bomb.
"I felt it hit," he said. "I felt heat moving across the back of my neck and down my shoulder. I touched the back of my head."
The heat, he realized, was blood. He said he passed out. Then, he said, he was in the hospital, and then he was being told he shouldn't be a soldier anymore, and then he was home, and then he became a farmer, and then he was saying goodbye to his wife and seven children, and then he was in Jordan looking for work, and now he was here, in the grime, writing a letter to there.
Home, from which a letter had come the week before, saying they had turned the center, windowless room of the house into a safe room -- just in case -- which was when he realized they believed as he did -- that if war broke out, the Americans would be using weapons of mass destruction as they did, he said, "in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."
And bombing warehouses full of powdered milk just as they did, he said, in the Gulf War, which is why his 3-month-old child got sick and remains sick to this day.
"I apologize for my feelings," he said, sleeve lowered, hair back in place. "I am a peace lover. But these are the facts."
So how could he not talk about the war when he began writing back to there?
"A wish of love," he wrote to Saeed.
"A wish to God to prevent our country and brothers from unjust aggression," he wrote next.
"A wish that if it happens, you choose death instead of life," he wrote next, urging fighting rather than running.
"Feed," he then wrote. "Goats."
And then, with time running out, he decided to stop being coy. War was coming. He knew it, and he had two things he needed to say.
First: "Buy 250 bullets and keep them until war erupts and stay close to the house and fight."
Second: "Please make a cassette tape with your voice and all the voices of my brothers, and their children, and my entire family. I want to keep your voices next to me."
Time was up. Time to turn it in.
"I wish peace for everyone," he scribbled, needing to say a third thing, "and for God to reunite us soon."
He signed it, sealed it, and gave it to the driver, who promised him his message would make it to Iraq.