Book Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers has always been connected with specialty coffee in my mind. I purchased my first Eggers’s novel from Quills Coffee and Books on Kentucky St. in Louisville’s Paristown neighborhood. (Due to a bad landlord situation the shop closed. When it reopened on nearby Baxter Avenue, the “and Books” was dropped from everything but legal documents). The book was What is the What, a novel based on the true story of a Sudanese refugee who barely escapes his village being slaughtered by rebels and eventually gets to America, where he encounters hardships of a different kind. To this day, whenever someone mentions Eggers I’m transported back to that small corner café, with Quills’s distinctive red mug and a coffee-stained book.

It turns out the association between Eggers and coffee was misguided but strangely prescient. Eggers latest book, The Monk of Mokha, chronicles the true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the founder of specialty coffee importer Port of Mokha. I was surprised to learn in the introduction that Eggers was himself a specialty coffee skeptic. (In one interview, Eggers explains he had his first cup of coffee at age 35). But the story of an American coffee trader that transversed the Red Sea on a small motorboat to transport his coffee to the Specialty Coffee Association Expo in Seattle caught his attention. Eggers and Alkhanshali met up for a cup of coffee and had a conversation which sparked a three year investigation into Alkhanshali’s remarkable life.

At its core, Eggers writes that Alkhanshali’s story is fundamentally about the American dream. The grandson of Yemeni immigrants, Alkhanshali grew up in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood. Life in the inner city taught Alkhanshali to think fast, and before discovering specialty coffee, Alkhanshali had explored many careers. He experienced success as a car salesman, but became disillusioned when he watched his supervisor mislead an old man. Alkhanshali volunteered as a community organizer and advocate for Muslim Americans, lobbying in Washington for the US to end their support of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, but wasn’t sure if he could turn that into a career. It was working as a doorman in a luxury high rise that Alkhanshali learned Yemen’s crucial role in the history of coffee.

Although coffee is indigenous to Ethiopia, Yemen was the first place coffee was produced on a large scale for export. Until the Dutch managed so smuggle a few plants out of the country, Yemen, then under Ottoman control, had a monopoly on the global coffee trade. As coffee spread around the world, Yemen’s role slowly faded until the present. Today, the more-profitable narcotic plant khat has all but replaced coffee in many growing regions.

Inspired to reintroduce the world to Yemeni coffee, Alkhanshali threw himself into the Bay area specialty coffee scene, attending cuppings at Blue Bottle and enlisting the help of coffee consultant Willem Boot. Alkhanshali became the first Arab Q grader, and used his connections in Yemen to teach farmers how to improve their coffee quality by only picking ripe cherries and drying the cherries on raised African-style beds. Despite contracting malaria and a parasite, Alkhanshali traveled to every coffee producing region in Yemen to collect samples.

As one would expect from a writer of Eggers’s caliber, the prose in The Monk of Mokha is riveting. In Eggers’s hands, the story of one man’s journey to rural agricultural communities in the mountains of Yemen reads with all of the excitement and suspense of a thriller. Indeed, by the climax there are explosions as Saudi Arabia begins bombing the Houthi rebels that have taken over Sana’a.

To write this book Eggers immersed himself in the world of coffee: attending and observing cuppings at San Rafael’s Boot Coffee and traveling with Alkhanshali to some of the oldest coffee producing regions of Ethiopia. For someone who wasn’t particularly interested in coffee before meeting Alkhanshali, Eggers captures the details remarkably well.

In all, The Monk of Mokha is an inspiring story about one individual’s pursuit of the American dream in the 21st century. It’s a timely message for a specialty coffee community that has begun to doubt whether meaning change is possible at every step of the supply chain. In the three years since his perilous journey to Seattle, the situation in Yemen has worsened in many ways, but Alkhanshali’s work continues.

You can try some of Alkhanshali’s remarkable coffee by ordering online.

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