Meet Dubai’s Indiana Jones of the book world

Estimated read time 8 min read

David Hirsch is the Advisor for Library Services at Mohammed Bin Rashid Library in Dubai. JONATHAN YBERA/EXPAT MEDIA

Meet Dubai’s Indiana Jones of the book world: When it comes to living life to the fullest, take a leaf from David Hirsch’s book

While the fictional Indiana Jones goes around hunting for lost treasures and relics, Dubai’s globetrotting librarian David Hirsch goes on real-life treasure hunts of his own: tracking down the world’s rarest books and published treasures.

“I don’t just sit in the basement and say, ‘Shhh!’” David answers Expat Media with a grin when we ask him to dispel a common misconception that people have about his job. We chuckle at his sense of humour, trying not to make too much noise in the secluded section of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library where he has sat down with the team for an exclusive interview.

At 65, the renowned Advisor for Library Services at Mohammed Bin Rashid Library exudes zest for life like a 25-year-old, which he segues is the best age. In fact, David’s larger than life personality is a book on its own: He is a book and comics collector, a wide traveler, a passionate foodie, and a polygolot who speaks Arabic fluently and knows at least half a dozen other languages!

David has been instrumental to helping the largest library in Dubai amass a jaw dropping collection of the world’s rarest books, atlases and manuscripts, including unique copies of the Holy Quran and the first edition of the 17th-century epic novel Don Quixote. He even tracked down a rare first edition book of Philippine hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s poems. That book is now displayed as part of the collection of the massive library’s Treasures of the Library museum on the 7th floor.

“When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader. I would fall asleep with a book in my hands. Now, most of what I read are reviews of books to help me decide what to put in the library, and reading materials to help me help other people,” David shares, “I try to acquire books that are interesting, if not unique at least unusual.” He also travels to book fairs around the world.

David Hirsch is the Advisor for Library Services at Mohammed Bin Rashid Library

Surprisingly, he didn’t always want to be a librarian. “I wanted to be a veterinarian,” he says. He started out as a Biology major but switched to Middle Eastern studies when he “didn’t do so well” in organic chemistry. He discovered that he was very good in languages and was drawn to the Arabic language after one of his friends in the US introduced it to him. He decided to study it formally and graduated with a degree in Middle Eastern studies from University of Pennsylvania. He also has Master’s Degrees in Middle Eastern Studies and Library Science from the University of Chicago.

A magical job

“When I was a kid, my parents had friends: a couple who were librarians and they used to help me with homework sometimes. They were like magicians. Anything I was looking for, they could find the information. This was before the internet, but they knew where to look on the shelf. So, when I decided to take a different career path, I thought of them and thought I wanted to be a magician, too!” David recalls.

His first job was as Special Coordinator at the UAE University’s Zayed Central Library. He then served as Chief Librarian and then Libraries Advisor at the Abu Dhabi National Library before moving back to the US to serve as Librarian for Middle Eastern, Central Asian, South Asian and Islamic Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA). He holds the title of Distinguished Librarian and was named Librarian of the Year at UCLA in 2013.

As a book lover, David’s personal collection is now in the thousands. In his two-bedroom apartment in Dubai, he has “close to a thousand” books, and “three to four thousand” in his home in the US.

Footloose librarian

“My mother used to say I was afraid to cross the street as a kid. I don’t remember that I was afraid to cross the street. But she says, ‘He used to be afraid to cross the street, now he’s crossing oceans’,” David shares, explaining his penchant for travel.

He has lived in Egypt, Yemen and Turkey before returning to the UAE where he has stayed the longest. He first arrived in the emirates in 1983 for a short stint as a university student in Al Ain.

David Hirsch is the Advisor for Library Services at Mohammed Bin Rashid Library

“I got a scholarship from the UAE government to study Arabic in the UAE University and I lived in a dorm with Emirati students,” he recalls. “When I got here, I spoke Egyptian Arabic, so my Emirati friends taught me their dialect,” he says, “I’m still not perfect in Emirati dialect but, as I like to tell people, they can’t sell me. I know enough!”

He recalls that student life in Al Ain was good. “Al Ain was a very pretty town. I enjoyed living there. There was only one main street and it was called Main Street. There were no public buses; you had to get around with taxis. The dormitory was far out of town but it was carpeted and airconditioned and the food was catered from the Hilton,” he says.

Now that he is 65, is there anything that he wishes he would have done differently? “I’d probably want to go back to my 20s and travelled more when I was younger. It would have been easier to travel when I was younger, and it would have been nice if I found somebody to travel with,” he says with a wry smile.

Living in the UAE fueled David’s appetite for traveling the world, opening up to new cultures, languages and food, and building a collection of books and comic books along the way.

“You have to be open to new experiences, cultures, cuisines and people. That’s the wonderful thing about the UAE. There’s more than 200 nationalities here,” David says. He is able to practice Spanish, Persian, French, Italian, Turkish, and some Swahili and Indonesian with residents and tourists here.

He loves to travel and go on adventures when he can. He has hurtled down the Hajar mountain on the Jebel Jais Sledder, went kayaking in Dibba and Khor Fakkan, tried black water rafting, as well as swum with the whale sharks in Cebu, Philippines, among other adventures here and abroad. He wants to travel to Bhutan next.

“I also like to eat. There are so many different restaurants to try here and so many different cuisines. Yesterday, I was in International City and I went to an Uyghur restaurant with a Chinese friend. Uyghurs are Muslims in China and they have they own cuisine,” he shares excitedly.

When it comes to living life to the fullest, take a leaf from David’s book: “It is important to take time for yourself. Try new things. Try not to be rigid in your expectations,” he says. PIA/Expat Media

Rapid fire with David Hirsch

David Hirsch is the Advisor for Library Services at Mohammed Bin Rashid Library

Three words to describe yourself
Curious. Cautious. Adventurous.

Favourite day of the week

Favourite book
All Creatures Great and Small.

Favourite author
I don’t remember!

Book you could read over and over
Happiness is a Warm Puppy.

Watch a movie or read a book?
Watch a movie.

Read a book or travel?
Travel. But read a book about it first!

Fiction or non-fiction?

Printed book or e-book?
Printed book!

Hardback or paperback?

Early bird or night owl?
Definitely early bird.

Your strangest talent
I can raise an eyebrow.

Favourite word

Your secret phobia
If I told you it wouldn’t be a secret, would it?

Coffee or tea?

What’s the best age?

Your favourite Arabic word
Tam. It means finished. Done.

Say something in another language
Kumusta ka? (Filipino for ‘How are you?’)

How many hours of sleep do you need?
4 to 5 hours.

Live forever or die happy?
Die happy.

Craziest thing you’ve ever done?
Black water rafting.

If your life were a book what would be the title?
The Footloose Librarian. Because I’m a librarian and I like to travel.

A condensed version of this story appears in the Expat Media Special Edition magazine

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