Dave Eggers tells the stranger-than-fiction tale of Yemen's coffee king

Mokhtar Alkhanshali with his product in Yemen
Mokhtar Alkhanshali with his product in Yemen Credit: Penguin Random House


Dave Eggers’s non-fiction epic The Monk of Mokha is as gripping as any of his novels, writes Tim Smith-Laing

Like millions of people across the world, I can hardly get out of bed without a cup of coffee; like a somewhat smaller number of people I am embarrassingly picky about it. Given the chance, I will wax lyrical about the relative merits of Yirgacheffe and Huila, get worked up over the difference between dry and wet foam, or explain the Scylla-and-Charybdis dangers of under and over-extracting espresso. Of course my friends and family know much better than to set me off like this. After all, coffee is just a hot drink. And not being able to get a good flat white is the definition of a “First World problem”.

Dave Eggers’s gripping new book, The Monk of Mokha (Knopf, £18.99), about one man’s real-life quest to resurrect Yemen’s coffee groves and bring their produce to California, puts a different perspective on things. Flat whites might be a First World luxury, but they are made from a largely Third World product. From pricey ristrettos titrated by baristas with more training than the average surgeon, to the freeze-dried stuff that tastes like toasted cardboard, coffee is a “seventy-billion-dollar global commodity” that ties some of the richest areas of the world to some of the poorest.

This is not news: ethical consumerism has been pointing out these kinds of issues for the past decade or so, and Fairtrade coffee has been with us for just as long. But the fact remains that the beans that wind up in the cups of connoisseurs are grown in places such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Colombia and Java, largely hand-picked and hand-processed by people who, if they are lucky, might earn in a day what you or I pay for a single cup. And if they are doing it in Yemen, they will be earning that wage against a backdrop of drone warfare, Saudi air strikes and the constant back and forth of militias locked in an ongoing civil war.

You might think, then, that it would be madness to try to get coffee out of Yemen, and you would be right. Much of The Monk of Mokha, written up by Eggers from three years of interviews with its Yemeni-American hero Mokhtar Alkhanshali, is stranger than fiction. Eggers follows the American-born Mokhtar from the poor, desperately seedy Tenderloin district of San Francisco, to his parents’ native Yemen, and back again, via a seemingly endless succession of scrapes and near-death experiences, until the whole enterprise takes on a kind of hysterical absurdity.

At one point, attempting to get coffee samples out of the country, Mokhtar, in a taxi rigged up to run on gas from a tank stuck on the back of the boot, drives into a firefight. The car, somehow, does not have a reverse gear, so he and his cousin have to get out and push it to safety. Mokhtar tells how they broke into giggles, “pushing a taxi with an exposed propane tank while machine-gun fire rattled over their heads”, unable to run away because all their coffee was inside.

The journey from plant to cup is long Credit: Penguin Random House

This is not even the tensest moment. Well served by Eggers’s straight-plank prose and sense of narrative, Mokhtar’s story is as gripping as anything in Eggers’s novels. The later parts of the book trace his desperate dash across Yemen in search of a way to get himself, his partner and his beans to a trade fair in Seattle. Every checkpoint they have to pass is a heart-in-mouth moment. Each time Mokhtar is stopped, neither he nor the reader can predict whether he and his companions will be waved through, taken off to be shot, or guided towards hot showers in a plush hotel. It says something that this is the kind of non-fiction book where one has to be wary of giving away spoilers.

It is a superb story, and Eggers neatly wraps it round the history of coffee. Though little comes from there now, Yemen – Felix Arabia as it was once – was the birthplace of coffee as we know it. According to the origin tale favoured by Mokhtar, it was a Sufi monk named Ali ibn Umar al-Shadhili from Mokha on Yemen’s Red Sea coast who first spotted the invigorating properties of the small red berries native to Ethiopia. The beans inside are said to have helped him and his fellow mystics reach “a kind of religious ecstasy”. From the 16th through to the 19th century, Mokha was the world’s major coffee port, only falling into decline as colonial powers spread their dominance and set up plantations in the Far East, South America and elsewhere.

Nowadays, Yemen could well be called Infelix Arabia: “one of the world’s most menacing places, and home to burgeoning al-Qaeda and ISIS cells”. Which is the overriding reason behind Mokhtar’s quixotic mission. Not a coffee snob himself, he is driven by a combination of entrepreneurial spirit and a desire that Yemen be known again for more than “terrorism and drones”. 

It is about being able to have pride in a heritage and a religion that for most Americans, even as they consume a brew birthed by Sufi mystics, summons up little beyond extremism. This is clearly where the meat of the tale lies for Eggers: his prologue dates his last meeting with Mokhtar by the trial of the Boston Marathon bombers, “fourteen years after 9/11”, while a police helicopter hovers overhead.

Author Dave Eggers Credit: Em-J Staples 

Like his latest novel, A Hologram for the King, and 2009’s foray into non-fiction, Zeitoun, The Monk of Mokha is about the meeting of American and Muslim cultures, and someone stuck between them. As the epigraph, from Saul Bellow’s Herzog, makes clear, it is about a man “in a society that was no community and devalued the person. Owing to the multiplied power of numbers which made the self negligible.”

Eggers is, as much as anything, a one-man social conscience for America, his writing intertwined with activism and philanthropy. As with Zeitoun, money from this book will go to a charitable foundation for issues relating to it, and like Zeitoun it shines a light on a story that says something about America and the world today. But he is not preachy; or at least, like all good preachers, he knows the value of a good story told well.

In his hands, Mokhtar’s tale, followed from childhood to maturity, becomes a kind of picaresque bildungsroman for the globalised 21st century. If Eggers’s writing about the “hardscrabble” world of Tenderloin with all its “junkies and hustlers” occasionally thuds towards cliché, it is impossible not to root for Mokhtar. And as with all good bildungsromans, it is as much the reader as the hero who receives an education.

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