In 1967, the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War meant that a young Zaki Nusseibeh, done with his studies at Cambridge, could not return home to Jerusalem. Instead, chance brought him to Abu Dhabi. He arrived with few personal belongings and the most precious thing he owned: about 100 books.
"That was an enormous library in those days," says the 71-year-old Palestinian. "I came out here not knowing what will happen to me in the next two years and I thought it was important to have my books with me."
There were tomes on literature and poetry, titles by TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Nizar Qabbani; oft-read, dog-eared titles that Nusseibeh says "have always been with me".
"I had some art books, on Renaissance art, one on Botticelli as I recall and some books on the politics of the region."
Those first 100 books still take pride of place among his possessions, but today, what he once thought of as an "enormous library" pales in comparison with the 40,000-plus titles, in six languages, that are slowly taking over Nusseibeh's homes. And it's not just books. He has a growing collection of art from the Middle East and South East Asia at his Al Ain home, which he describes as "part library and part museum", and is immensely proud of his collection of music, which includes classical, Arabic and Western genres. "I have an especially good library of opera music and a complete collection of Wagner," says Nusseibeh.
In fact, he credits his love for music – and especially his passion for the opera – to helping him learn German, Italian and Spanish, in addition to his fluency in English, French and his mother tongue of Arabic.
"I attend operas all over the world, and knowing German and Italian was important for that," says Nusseibeh. "But I also credit Sheikh Zayed for pushing me to pursue this passion I had for languages. The more I worked with him, the more he pushed me to learn more languages, so I could translate for him everywhere."
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say Nusseibeh was Sheikh Zayed's right-hand man; his chance trip to Abu Dhabi led to him building a distinguished life and career in the UAE as official interpreter for the Founding Father of the Nation, and cultural adviser for the presidential court.
"I ended up here almost by accident, I'm going to share that story," says Nusseibeh, chuckling. He promises that on Tuesday evening, when he hosts a discussion on the UAE's cultural growth and development at Dubai's Literaturhaus at Nadi, he will delve into the details.
"First, we'll start with how it happened that I came here, why I ended up in Abu Dhabi and the Emirates, and working with Sheikh Zayed. I became, very early on, his voice almost, through the translation I was doing for him," explains Nusseibeh. "I will talk about his views, which I had to translate often, and reference an interview I did with him in 1968, because of the relevance of what he said then to our time now."
Nusseibeh will also be focusing some of his discussion on the art of translation, which was the very essence of his career for decades.
"I will share my experience when it comes to translation, the difference between giving a sense of what is being said and translating word for word, whether poetry can be translated, what is often lost in translation, when to choose literal translation over giving a sense of the meaning and how to find the equilibrium between the two," promises Nusseibeh.
Then, as one of the main supporters of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project, as one of the pioneers of the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, as a board member of TCA Abu Dhabi and vice chairman of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and the director of information and chairman of the Classical Music Committee, to name just a few of the many cultural roles he has held over the years, Nusseibeh will also discuss Abu Dhabi's cultural vision, which he has been involved in from the very start.
"I will talk a little bit about the Louvre, in anticipation of its November opening," says Nusseibeh. "There is still an Orientalist critique heard from time to time to say that the Gulf countries are all nouveau riche and do not merit having a museum like the Louvre, and I will address that in relation to what Abu Dhabi wants to execute and why."
He is as passionate about this kind of cultural discourse as he is about his books; both are equally integral, he maintains, in the pursuit of education and personal improvement.
"After arriving in Abu Dhabi, my life soon became one in which it was important to be well informed and so I had to get my hands on as many books as I could," he says. It was difficult back then, with no public library in the UAE. Nusseibeh got his books from Beirut, Cairo, London Paris; friends were often cajoled into sending him books or carrying them back to Abu Dhabi in their suitcases.
"Gradually, my library grew. It was about informing myself and educating myself," as well as improving his fluency in languages. He advises reading in a different language every day, for 30 minutes to an hour. "Fluency comes through reading," he says. "Education comes through reading and I think it is vitally important for every person to continue educating one's self. This process of improvement only comes through reading and being open to art and music and other cultural activities. It opens the mind, gives you new perspective, gives you new insight, allows you to communicate better with others, to understand others, to empathize with them; it's an essential building block for any personality and people who do not work at it really suffer great disadvantages as a result, they deprive themselves."
To that end. Nusseibeh's books have taken on a life of their own. In his Abu Dhabi home, gifted to him by Sheikh Zayed, there's no more room for a single book, so his home in Al Ain is the one constantly expanding with titles. "My library is an ongoing narrative," says Nusseibeh.
"Sheikh Zayed very generously built me the house in Al Ain but I designed it, and the first thing I designed was a library, to make sure I have enough space."
But even Nusseibeh could not have imagined that the beautiful, wood-panelled library space he had created, made comfortable with buttery leather couches, would not be enough to house his books. They are piled on every surface: literary books and bestsellers; books on politics and public affairs; books on art, philosophy, religion and history; books in six or seven languages. They are stacked high in the hallways, overflowing into the rest of the house and even into the bedrooms. Nusseibeh, however, doesn't mind.
"It will continue to grow. Because you cannot be bored if you are a reader. And you cannot lead a happy life if you are not open to culture and music and art and beauty."
Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh will be speaking at Literaturhaus in Nadi at Alserkal Avenue tomorrow, 6:30pm. Entrance is free but booking is advised by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org