Far away from his comfortable, cluttered office at UCLA, librarian David Hirsch was on a plane bound for Iraq – without a visa.
His only key into the war-torn state was a scanned letter from the office of the governor of Basra, a city in southern Iraq, he had printed out from an email. The letter granted Hirsch permission into the country, without having to go through the U.S. Consulate.
The trip, more than five months ago, was a departure from his regular life as a librarian for the Charles E. Young Research Library, where he specializes in Middle Eastern and Central and South Asian studies. He collects works from every part of the Arab world, be it high literature or political propaganda.
Hirsch was invited to Iraq to give lectures at the University of Basrah and inform Arab students what American libraries are doing to study Middle Eastern culture.
"People in the Middle East don't even know that Americans are interested in their lives," Hirsch said. "(Teaching in the Middle East is) a little bit of public diplomacy."
Hirsch can speak and teach a number of languages, including Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and Urdu. Using these skills, he collects, analyzes and catalogues Middle Eastern and South and Central Asian literary works at UCLA.
Parts of his collection can be found in various library exhibits at UCLA, which connect his findings with the work of faculty members on campus. Hirsch helped coordinate an exhibit about the history of Armenian writing that is currently housed in the Young Research Library.
His interest in the Middle East was first sparked during a 1976 trip to Spain and Morocco where the beauty of the Arabic alphabet caught his eye. Although he entered college at the University of Pennsylvania as a biology student, he quickly fell in love with languages instead.
After a two-year stint studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo and receiving a dual master's degree from the University of Chicago in library sciences and Middle Eastern studies, paid for by the U.S. government, Hirsch began working at UCLA. He has been at UCLA ever since, only taking a brief two-and-a-half-year leave of absence to work as an adviser for the National Library in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
In 2000, Hirsch oversaw a project that digitalized Arabic and Persian manuscripts, uploading them in both Westernized and original languages. In 2007, the project received a $300,000 endowment from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
While in Iraq earlier this year, Hirsch said he dealt with frequent blackouts and inconsistent Internet access.
Despite being accompanied by a bodyguard when he visited tourist sites, Hirsch said he felt welcomed by the Iraqi people.
The region, which has seen political instability in recent years, was nothing new to Hirsch, who has taught at universities from Senegal to Saudi Arabia and collected literature, graphic novels and anything else deemed useful to students and faculty from the Islamic world.
Hirsch's office is crammed with stacks of literature – from books teaching 10-year-olds how to be exemplar Iraqi citizens to plaques with Arabic script that commemorate his work abroad.
Hirsch's primary job, since he started as a librarian in 1989 at the Charles E. Young Research Library, is to catalogue and bring back a bit of the Middle Eastern world for any professor or student on campus who might need it. He has amassed everything from a street flier featuring caricatures of Egyptian politicians to a detailed map of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.
When he is abroad, Hirsch doesn't go to bookstores. Instead, he uses connections with universities and scholars to help create the collection housed in UCLA's library – something his colleagues admire, said Gary Strong, the UCLA university librarian.
"He finds things to bring back … (that) other places just don't have," Strong said.
Wali Ahmadi, associate professor of Persian literature at UC Berkeley, said he found Hirsch's work extremely useful when he received his doctorate degree from UCLA in 1997. "If UCLA didn't have (a rare book), (Hirsch) got it," he said.
As a man who studies one of the most volatile regions in the world, Hirsch said he learned over the years to take the inconsistencies of the Middle East in stride.
"Just when you think it's never going to work in the Middle East, it does," he said. "That's just the way it is – you go with the flow."