Dubai: A librarian who wanted to be veterinarian; an American who is distinctly Middle Eastern; a globe trotter who has been to 90 countries; a polyglot who can wow you in over a dozen languages; a manga and comic-crazy collector — the man behind David Hirsch, Advisor to the yet-to-be opened Mohammed Bin Rashid Library (MBRL) in Dubai, could well make for a book himself.
But try telling him that, and the modest 64 year old simply shrugs it off. Just as he does about his sumptuous knowledge of foods from different cuisines – oh yes, he’s a foodie too, who enjoys eating - and talking about - everything from Mediterrenean Salads and Indian Idlis and Dosas to Arabic delights like Jsheet, Harees, Balaleet and Halwayooh Fish, complete with sweet endings like Rangeena, Aseedat Bober or Omani Halwa – the honey and saffron kind.
Tryst with the UAE
Now if that’s too much information to digest, that’s the price you have to pay when you talk to someone like Hirsch. Specially roped in by MBRL in 2018 to develop the library’s collections, Hirsch let on that he barely had a week’s time to retire from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), where he served for nearly 29 years as the librarian for Middle Eastern, Central Asian, South Asian and Armenian Studies, before he flew into Dubai for the prestigious assignment.
Not that he was new to the UAE. “I first came to this country in 1983 to study Arabic at the Language Centre at UAE University in Al Ain. I was back 10 years later to work at the university library for a year, and again in 1999 to develop the university’s government documents collection,” he said, adding that he also served at the National Library of Abu Dhabi between 2009 and 2011.
So how did Hirsch become a librarian in the first place?
The Philadelphia-born said, “I had no idea I would become one. When I was younger, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I didn’t do too well in organic chemistry. I liked reading books and enjoyed being around people – so a library gave me the opportunity to do both.”
Hirsch, who holds two Master’s degrees from the University of Chicago (Library Science and Middle Eastern Studies), said he had come a long way since his first job as a library assistant at the university, followed by a stint as a cataloguer with Princeton University in the US.
Penchant for languages
Hirsch is a distinguished librarian alright, but what also sets him apart is his proficiency in different languages and dialects, which in turn is closely linked with his travels.
Interestingly, he learnt his first foreign language - Spanish - in school, and discovered his love for Arabic on a trip to Spain. “I was first exposed to the Arabic script when I was travelling to Spain and Morocco with a friend in 1976. It was my first overseas trip as well. I just loved the look of the Arabic calligraphy and when I got back to the US, I was inspired to learn the language by a neighbour who happened to be doing a course.”
The more Hirsch got exposed to the language, the more it appealed to him. He received two grants to study Arabic at the Centre for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University of Cairo in Egypt. “I spent five hours a day, five days a week on Arabic, so I picked up quite a bit of the language in Cairo before I came to the UAE to do a course in Al Ain.
“Learning a language is one thing. But understanding the different dialects is another. For example, the Arabic spoken in the UAE is different from what is spoken in Egypt or another country. And it is only when you travel, live and mix with the people of a particular area that you become familiar with their dialects,” said Hirsch, who to his credit, is among the only westerners in his realm who can transact business in fluent Arabic today.
You can easily pick from a menu of languages if you want to speak to Hirsch. Besides Spanish and Arabic, he also knows Persian, Turkish, French, Italian, Swahili and Indonesian – most of which he has studied – and get by in Polish, Armenian, Uzbek and several other languages too.
Ask him how and why he does it, and pat comes the reply: “You just have to want to learn. By knowing a language, you get an immediate in, it’s a gateway into another world. People appreciate the effort you have made to learn their language. And it helps to joke or recite lines from a poem in their dialects.”
Hirsch’s love for languages and books has taken him to different countries – 90 of them across six continents. His quest for books and manuscripts has over the years extended to a large body of multi-lingual newspapers and magazines, reports and textbooks, besides posters, manga and comics from different corners of the world, his in-depth knowledge about these collections making him an enviable force to reckon with.
Talk to him and he is full of travel tales whether it’s about his visit to a Kurdish scholar’s library at Sulaimani in Northern Iraq; his discovery of zines and fanzines in Turkey; the time he spent at Anjuman-i Taraqqi Urdu in Karachi, Pakistan; his bonding with the natives of Somaliland; or the camel kisses he received at the home of Salem AlMazrouei in Madinat Zayed, Gharbia.
He can delight you with his insights into just about any reading material from any period of time: Dante’s The Divine Comedy (1491); the Second Folio of Shakespeare (1632); Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; Marie Curie’s Treatise on Radioactivity; the still-running Musawwar weekly of Egypt from 1925; or even Abou-Naddara; Batman vs Captain Majid; Arab comics and Emirati Manga; cookbooks and art books; and yes, newly released volumes on COVID-19 too – all of which are part of the extensive MBRL collections.
“The 66,000 square metre library has 550,000 treasures in English, Arabic and other languages, housed in separate sections, with vast digitised collections available across nine floors,” said Hirsch, promising a treat for adults and youngsters alike when it opens.
The mention of digitisation leads us to a discussion on the appeal of libraries with physical books in today’s times, what with UAE’s Reading Month also underway.
Hirsch believes that digitisation had made his role as a librarian even more relevant today as it falls upon people like him to help others sift through and navigate the huge quantity of information that is available on the Internet. Personally, he would still pick up a physical book for a good, enjoyable read, but turn to digital platforms for a quick intake, he added.