One assumes it’s hard enough to start a coffee business without having to get the beans out of a country in the midst of a civil war. Yet that’s the circumstance that Yemeni-American Mokhtar Alkhanshali found himself in when, in 2015, he started a direct-trade coffee company, the first of its kind to use beans grown in Yemen, the birthplace of coffee.
Dave Eggers chronicles Mokhtar’s experiences in his latest book, “The Monk of Mokha.” The result is a remarkable hybrid: an adventure story about a coffee entrepreneur that is also a portrait of one man’s attempt to understand his ancestral country.
Mokhtar grew up poor with his parents and six younger brothers in the Tenderloin section of San Francisco, a neighborhood that attracted “families newly arrived from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Middle East,” and fellow Yemenis. He worked at a number of odd jobs that Eggers describes in witty, quickly drawn scenes: shoe salesman, car salesman, and, finally, doorman at a posh apartment building that caters to the type of resident who would hire a harpist to play during dinner.
At age 25, he learns that Mokha, a port city on the Yemen coast, was where a Sufi holy man first brewed “a semblance of what we now recognize as coffee.” But the coffee trade in Yemen was virtually nonexistent, thanks in part to militias that made Yemen a precarious place for exporters. Yemeni farmers instead grew the more profitable qat, a “long leaf that when chewed in significant quantities provided a mild narcotic effect.”
With the help of organizations such as Blue Bottle, a high-end San Francisco coffee chain, and the support of other experts in the industry, Mokhtar learns the basics of coffee roasting — a curious choice for someone who “had only had a few dozen cups of coffee in his life” — and travels to Yemen to teach farmers how to produce a higher-quality bean and turn a larger profit.
Eggers deftly chronicles the complications Mokhtar encounters. Some are comical: On his first-ever visit to a Yemen coffee farm, Mokhtar professorially examines what he thinks is a coffee plant, only to be told he’s sniffing an olive tree. Others are far more harrowing, especially after armed Houthi rebel soldiers seize control of Yemen’s ports and airports, an event that threatens not just Mokhtar’s attempts to ship coffee cherries stateside but also his life.
Eggers’ detached style can seem an odd and distancing approach for a story about someone so driven. But this is still a fascinating account of an enterprising man pursuing his newfound passion while honoring the achievements of his ancestors and their descendants.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Newsday.
The Monk of Mokha
By: Dave Eggers.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 327 pages, $28.95.