Have another cup of coffee. It could save the world. Just make sure it’s the right kind of coffee.
That summary stands as a ridiculously oversimplified summary of The Monk of Mokha, the latest book by Dave Eggers. The book offers yet another example of the author’s uncanny ability to transform the long-odds stories of real-life immigrants and their American offspring into poignant and, often painful, page-turners.
Along the way, Eggers obliterates the often-errant logic behind persistent political logrolling in American politics based on presumptions of guilt and malice among Muslims and various immigrant peoples. As he did in “Zeitoun” and “What Is the What,” Eggers takes an exhaustive approach, investing hundreds of hours in interviews and far-flung travels that provide him the raw material to tell what can only can be described as the miraculous entrepreneurial story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali.
“Zeitoun” was a nonfiction account of the falsely accused title character in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American housepainter, helped stranded neighbors after the storm but wound up jailed because of unfounded suspicions of terrorism. The book won raves but came under scrutiny and criticism several years later when Abdulrahman Zeitoun divorced his wife, faced domestic abuse charges and, in 2016, was convicted of felony stalking, according to The New Orleans Advocate.
“What Is the What,” published in 2006, tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a real-life Sudanese “Lost Boy” who withstood the childhood ravages of civil war, witnessed horrible and relentless tides of violence and abuse, and, eventually, emigrated to the United States. It was written as a novelization of Deng’s experiences.
Eggers opted to tell the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali as a nonfiction narrative.
Mokhtar is an unfocused but ambitious young man when Eggers begins his story. His Yemeni American family lives in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, an immigrants’ enclave plagued by poverty, crime and addiction. Mokhtar recalls life in a one-bedroom apartment sandwiched by pornography shops – an apartment that housed him and his five siblings with their parents.
Mokhtar floundered during his school years, lacking motivation but embracing reading outside of school. (He liked to steal books so he could put them on his personal bookshelf.) As a young adult, Mokhtar found himself mired in debt and with little in the way of prospects, working as a doorman at a luxury condominium in San Francisco.
At 25 years old, already a college dropout, Mokhtar had no idea where he was going, if anywhere. And, then, one day, his girlfriend asked whether Mokhtar had ever noticed, across from the condos where he worked, the statue of a Yemeni man drinking a big cup of coffee.
The statue dated to the former headquarters of Hills Bros. coffee company. Mokhtar’s curiosity was piqued. He started asking questions about coffee – a subject he never had any interest in – and hasn’t stopped since.
First, his mother told him of how Yemenis started what became the commoditization of coffee some 500 years ago and reminded Mokhtar that, when he had been sent to live with his grandfather in Yemen at age 15 because of his aimlessness in school in San Francisco, Mokhtar had, unknowingly, lived in a house surrounded by coffee plants.
By 2013, Mokhtar Alkhanshali had decided he would revive the rich legacy of Yemeni coffee by importing beans from a country long ago surpassed by more stable and aggressive growers and distribution networks in Brazil, Colombia, and Ethiopia, among others.
“Monk of Mokha” takes its title from an origin story shared by Eggers. A Sufi mystic who pioneered brewing coffee many centuries ago earned the sobriquet as various peoples visited by gospel-spreading Sufis adopted the drink. Its name went from “qahwa” to “khave” to, finally, “coffee.”
Mokha, or mocha, as we know it, soon enough became synonymous with coffee. The reason: Mokha is a Yemeni port where coffee was put on ships and sent to the other parts of the world.
Mokha was and is a dry coastal city, located on terrain incompatible with coffee production, but it nonetheless became inextricably linked with the coffee harvested much farther inland in Yemen’s mountains because of its role as the original coffee shipping hub.
Eggers blends coffee history with sharp renderings of strife in modern Yemen, a war-torn country included among the Muslim countries whose people are banned from visiting the United States under legally contested restrictions imposed by the Trump administration.
First, Mokhtar, and, later Eggers himself, learned why the economics of premium coffee – which, at first whiff, look like another example of hyper-specialized foodie pretension – are far more reasonable than one might assume.
“Any given cup of coffee, then, might have been touched by twenty hands, from farm to cup, yet these cups only cost two or three dollars,” Eggers writes. “Even a four-dollar cup was miraculous, given how many people were involved, and how much individual human attention and expertise was lavished on the beans dissolved in that four-dollar cup. So much human attention and expertise, in fact, that even at four dollars a cup, chances were some person – or many people, hundreds of people – along the line were being taken, underpaid, exploited.”
Eggers sets the (coffee) table in the first third of the book. Once Mokhtar travels to Yemen to explore the possibility of convincing coffee farmers to process beans in a new way and export them, “Monk of Mokha” takes off and never slows down.
Mokhtar flails through cultural misadventures, financial barriers, and the not-so-small matter of trying to establish a distribution system in a country where Houthi rebels, terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and near-constant bombings by Saudi Arabia complicate everything. Like, for example, staying alive.
On his way to the gym in Sana’a in Feb. 2015, Mokhtar witnesses a terrorist attack that kills 38 people and wounds 60 more. And still he persists, opening a processing mill, recruiting repressed women as coffee sorters, and encountering thieves, kidnappers, smugglers, and blackmailers while hoping to become a coffee importer.
With “Monk of Mokha,” Eggers has brewed up a rich, smooth account of one man’s attempt to overcome the longest of odds – an account that will make readers think about a cup of joe in all new ways.