U.S. Professor Reflects On Return Home To Libya After living in the U.S. for nearly 40 years, University of Washington Economics Professor Ali Tarhouni left the comfort and safety of Seattle to return to Libya to help the rebels in their fight against leader Moammar Gadhafi. "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.
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U.S. Professor Reflects On Return Home To Libya

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U.S. Professor Reflects On Return Home To Libya

U.S. Professor Reflects On Return Home To Libya

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

But, first, to Benghazi and NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON: Ali 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, the first interruption.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RING)

KENYON: Hold on a second, please.

KENYON: 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 his decades in the U.S. his family always knew that if the opportunity ever came, he would probably go back.

KENYON: It was not unexpected that I will take this decision. What was unexpected is that I actually didn't 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.

KENYON: 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 at once comforting and confusing.

KENYON: I found the same smells, still recognized some of the streets. 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.

KENYON: Within two weeks of returning, Tarhouni was the rebels' finance minister, and also given the crucial oil and gas portfolio. His days of keeping regular hours are long gone. On the day of our interview, Tarhouni said he didn't get to sleep before 5 a.m. and was up for an 8:30 meeting. So far, he still sees it as an exhausting, exciting privilege.

KENYON: 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. But it's also exhilarating that once in a while, you know, 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 and it's really worth it.

KENYON: 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.

KENYON: So it wasn't a question, for example, that when we sat and I told her, she already knew even before I tell her.

MARTIN KASTE: Six thousand miles away, Tarhouni's wife, Mary Li, remembers it the same way.

BLOCK: If you had that kind of dream for that long, would your wife say, I don't want you to go? That's inconceivable to me.

KASTE: Li sits in a Starbucks high up in a Seattle office tower, the view outside is everything Libya isn't - rainy, green and safe. She's a lawyer and works for the state attorney general. They met in Michigan in the 1970s and they've been married 31 years, and their kids are almost all grown up.

BLOCK: I don't think my husband ever thought he would go back to Libya alive. So - so this is really amazing.

KASTE: 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.

KENYON: He's got to talk when he's got to talk, not when you're ready to talk.

KASTE: Ed Rice is a colleague and friend at the Foster School of Business. He helped Tarhouni wrap up his classes two months ago. Rice says Tarhouni didn't want to leave his students hanging.

KENYON: He did talk to them before he left and said, you know, I'm kind of a Libyan guy, and I've been doing this - working for freedom for Libya for a long time, and I got to go.

KASTE: Tarhouni's teaching assistant, Florian Muenkel, says the announcement was something of a bombshell, and it changed the way students saw Tarhouni.

BLOCK: Suddenly they realized that their professor was one of the important players in the Libyan opposition movement, although exiled. It was a big surprise to a lot of them.

KASTE: The thing is, before this rebellion, Tarhouni had stopped seeing himself that way. Ed 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. And Rice says Tarhouni had come to love his life in academia.

KENYON: He says, look, where do you have a job where what your job is to talk to all these bright people, you influence their life. It's a privilege to have this job. And I wonder what he's thinking now about, yeah, the comparative merits of getting bombs exploding around you and having the privilege of teaching these bright young people.

KENYON: 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's reminded of how radically his life has changed.

KENYON: 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? And fast forward, here I am making all these decisions regarding lives and death and 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.

KENYON: 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.

KENYON: Courage is not an endowment to particular people. It's surprising how everybody could be courageous. They're very normal people and, suddenly, most of these normal people could be heroes and courageous and do things that you don't expect.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Benghazi.

NORRIS: And we also heard from NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle.

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