The rebels in Libya are short of many things these days — weapons, money, even Cabinet ministers.
In the largely improvised scramble to set up an alternative to leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime, the rebels are leaning heavily on a small number of people. One of them is Ali Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics professor who abruptly left his family and students to join an uncertain Libyan revolution.
Tarhouni is not an easy man to sit down with these days; it would be an exaggeration to call him a one-man Cabinet, but sometimes it seems that way.
As he settles onto a leather couch in a Benghazi office on one recent day, the phone rings. He springs off the couch and speed walks out of the room to hand the phone to an aide. Otherwise the interview will never happen, he says.
With his long, dark hair and near-walrus mustache, it's not hard to picture Tarhouni in a faculty meeting or lecture hall — perhaps in a slightly earlier era. But Tarhouni defies the stereotype of the academic idealist declaiming from the comfort of an ivory tower.
A 'Surreal' Homecoming
When Libyans began their improbable uprising last month, Tarhouni left his family and students to return to a homeland he hadn't seen in nearly 40 years.
It wasn't an epiphany. He says throughout the decades in the U.S. his family always knew that if the opportunity ever came, he would probably go back.
"It was not unexpected that I would take this decision," he says. "What was unexpected is that I didn't actually think it would happen. I was doing the bravado thing all these years, you know, Gadhafi will go and democracy will come back. But 40 years is a long time and after a while you start thinking, hey, this is not going to happen."
Now Tarhouni is betting his security, and possibly more, that it will happen. He fled Libya in 1973 after his pro-democracy activism drew the wrath of the Gadhafi regime, which stripped him of his citizenship.
Arriving back on Libyan soil last month from Egypt, he says familiar landmarks were both comforting and confusing.
"I found the same smells, still recognized some of the streets," he says. "I found the familiar but, also, I have to be honest with you, I didn't have time — I still don't have time — to figure it out."
Within two weeks of returning, Tarhouni was the rebels' finance minister, and he also was given the crucial oil and gas portfolio.
His days of keeping regular hours are long gone: On the day of the interview, Tarhouni said he didn't get to sleep before 5 a.m. and was up for an 8:30 a.m. meeting.
So far, he still sees it as an exhausting, exciting privilege.
"It was almost surreal, in a sense that — as a matter of fact even up to now — sometimes I wonder if this is still a dream," he says. "But it's also exhilarating in the sense of, once in a while I insist on leaving this building and you know, go out and walk for 10 minutes. And you see the people, and you see the faces and you realize yeah, it's really true, it's really worth it."
Leaving A Life Behind
When he comes up for air, he thinks of his family and reflects on his good fortune to have a spouse who knows him so well that there was no anxious moment when he wondered how she would take the news.
"So it wasn't a question of we sat and I told her," he says. "She already knew before I told her."
Six thousand miles away, Tarhouni's wife, Mary Li, remembers it the same way.
"If you had that kind of dream for that long, would your wife say, 'I don't want you to go?' " she says. "That's inconceivable to me."
Sitting in a Starbucks high up in a Seattle office tower, the view outside is everything Libya isn't: rainy, green and safe.
Li is a lawyer and works for the state attorney general. The two met in Michigan in the 1970s. They've been married 31 years, and their kids are almost all grown.
"I don't think my husband ever thought he'd go back to Libya alive," she says. "So, so this is really amazing."
She says they don't get to talk much — just "brief calls." Tarhouni's colleagues at the University of Washington have heard even less from him.
"He's got to talk when he's gotta talk — not when you're ready," says Ed Rice, a colleague and friend at the Foster School of Business.
Rice helped Tarhouni wrap up his classes two months ago. He says Tarhouni didn't want to leave his students hanging. "He did talk to them before he left, and said, 'You know, I am kind of a Libyan guy, and I've been doing this, working for freedom for Libya for a long time, and I gotta go,' " he says.
Tarhouni's teaching assistant, Florian Muenkel, says that announcement was something of a bombshell, and it changed the way students saw him.
"Suddenly they realized that their professor was one of the important players in the Libyan opposition movement, although exiled," Muenkel says. "It was a big surprise to a lot of them."
The thing is, before this rebellion, Tarhouni had stopped seeing himself that way. Rice recalls that about 10 years ago, Tarhouni told him that he was pulling back from the opposition movement because Gadhafi's regime seemed so firmly entrenched. Tarhouni had come to love his life in academia, Rice says.
"He says, 'Look, where do you have a job where, what your job is to talk to all these bright people, to influence their life. It's a privilege to have this job.' And I wonder what he's thinking now about the comparative merits of getting bombs exploding around you and having the privilege of teaching these bright young people," Rice says.
Back in Benghazi, Tarhouni is discussing how to defend Libya's oil pipelines from sabotage and how to get an influx of funds into the rebels' nascent Central Bank, when he is reminded of how radically his life has changed.
"The decisions that I used to make only three months ago is, would I drive on Aurora Avenue or I-5 to avoid the traffic?" he says. "And fast-forward, here I am making all these decisions regarding lives, death, armaments, economies. And it's not as hard as it sounds — I'm not overwhelmed with it. I'm just tired. It's physically exhausting."
Tarhouni's courage has surprised even some of his rebel colleagues. They were shocked recently to hear that their finance minister had jumped on a fishing boat to personally deliver salary money to the besieged city of Misrata in the Gadhafi-controlled west.
But as another demonstration passes by outside, he says he's no hero.
He is, however, a bit relieved to find that after decades of anti-Gadhafi activism from the comfort of his home in Seattle, he's finding it in himself to rise to an extraordinarily demanding occasion.
"Courage is not an endowment to particular people," he says. "It's surprising how everybody can be courageous. They're very normal people and, suddenly, most of these normal people could be heroes, courageous — and do things you don't expect."
Tarhouni smiles a bit at his tendency to theorize. Like everyone else here, he has no idea how Libya's revolution will end. But after so many years away from home, he's got a front-row seat at an event others will be theorizing about for years to come. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.