Author: Dave Eggers
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 2018
Number of Pages: 323 pages
The Monk of Mokha is the exhilarating true story of a young Yemeni American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee but finds himself trapped in Sana’a by civil war.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali is twenty-four and working as a doorman when he discovers the astonishing history of coffee and Yemen’s central place in it. He leaves San Francisco and travels deep into his ancestral homeland to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains and meet beleaguered but determined farmers. But when war engulfs the country and Saudi bombs rain down, Mokhtar has to find a way out of Yemen without abandoning his people or sacrificing his most American of dreams.
Coffee is undoubtedly a global commodity that has become a multi-billion-dollar industry which everyone wants to partake of. Coffee has, in its most subtle ways, the way we look at our quotidian routine. It has become a staple and the demand for it has considerably increased over the years. All over the world, cafes have popped out like mushrooms, catering millions of caffeine junkies. But who would have thought that one tiny cherry bean could sweep the world over in a caffeine-infused aria, syncopating to the beat of espresso, latte, Americano, and macchiato. But the real history of how these tiny beans ended up on our mugs has been obscured from the casual coffee drinkers. When coffee has reached our consciousness, it was already in the form of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, or Coffee Bean.
Young Yemeni American Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s prospects seemed bleak. After dropping out from college, he jumped from one job to another. While hunting for a new job, an unusual encounter with coffee piqued his interest, more so when he learned about his ancestral country’s central role in the coffee trade. It thrived there. Once. As he researched more about coffee, the things he learned astonished him and stunned him beyond belief. In the hopes of reviving Yemeni coffee’s lost glory, he embarked on an Odyssey back to Yemen.
The strong injustice Mokhtar felt apropos Yemen’s place in coffee history set into motion a chain of events which saw him scouring the Yemeni countryside, looking for the best coffee. Not only that, he aims to establish processes that will ensure quality coffee production. He wants to climb the social ladder while bringing his countrymen with him. The stakes are higher, however, because he has to do all of these while Yemen is in the midst of a civil war. Yemen, after all, is a country being scarred and divided by both internal and external conflicts.
The story’s interesting premise was the first thing that caught my attention. I encountered the book only while browsing for prospective books that I can consider for my 2018 Most Anticipated Books list. The fact that it is a nonfiction book and that it is gaining high praises were among the things that I considered when I bought myself a copy. This is my first nonfiction book in over eight years – the last one I read was about Queen Elizabeth II and the British monarchy. Understandably, I am apprehensive but it is something that I look forward to.
There are two layers to the story – the history of coffee and the adventures of Mokhtar, both of which are the most interesting subjects of the story. Moreover, the book is divided into five parts, each relating a significant phase in Mokhtar’s coffee Odyssey. A simpler way of breaking down the narrative is this: the first part relates the life of Mokhtar growing up in the backstreets of San Francisco; the second part deals with his adventures in Yemen in order to bring Yemeni coffee to global attention; and the last part narrates the success Mokhtar achieved after he was finally able to successfully introduce Yemeni coffee to the coffee connoisseurs.
Resiliency is perhaps the biggest lesson in the story. Coffee was first commercially produced in Yemen but it was kept secret a to the rest of the world until a series of unfortunate events led to this secret being revealed. With coffee cashing in profits, businessmen were quick to capitalize on the opportunity. From Yemen, other countries began growing and producing coffee in commercial quantities. But while the farmers in these countries progressed, the Yemeni coffee farmers were left behind. The quality of Yemeni coffee declined and the exploitation of Yemeni coffee growers resulted in a general decline in production. From farming coffee, Yemenis switched to farming qat.
Instead of feeling sorry to the injustice he perceived, Mokhtar devised a plan to bring back the lost splendor of Yemeni coffee. The past is done and rewriting it would serve no purpose. It is best to move forward and improve on what there is at the present. There are many reasons to be disheartened and be discouraged but Mokhtar worked against the odds, even studying to and becoming a certified coffee Q grader, the first Arab to do so.
Although coffee is the story’s centrifugal point, it was Mokhtar’s indomitable courage that drove the story forward. From humble beginnings, he strove hard to achieve his own brand of success. His drive and his vision sets him apart from the ordinary man. Even the way he responds to setbacks differ greatly from how an ordinary man would. He sees them as opportunities to think of solutions. He possesses what most successful businessmen possess – am uncanny sense of looking for opportunities and then capitalizing on it.
“You’re going to fail in life if you’re not going to finish college.” This is a very common phrase that parents use to encourage their children to go to school. Then on the other side of the spectrum, there is Mokhtar and a throng of other hugely successful businessmen. They have proven that diplomas or educational achievements are no the gauge to measuring one’s future success. They have shown that such are not needed to succeed. Mokhtar’s story underlined what we all knew but refuse to accept because of the ideas planted on us. We can all make it if we persist.
Mokhtar’s story is inspiring as most successful businessmen’s story goes. At points of the story, however, I felt like the story was implausible. There was a flare of the fictional in both the story and the writing. Some of Mokhtar’s actions were whimsical and defies logic. Again, maybe his instinct is what sets him apart. Lastly, Egger’s offhanded storytelling style contributed to this texture of superficiality. There was no intimacy between the subject and the author, which is kind of odd.
Overall, Mokhtar’s story is a story we often hear about. But even though we have read or listened to it over and over again, we never get tired of them, hoping to find that secret formula that led them where they are right now so that we can emulate them. Mokhtar’s adventures and troubles in bringing Yemeni coffee to the world are two engaging stories that has kept me on the edge of my seat for the duration of my reading journey.
P.S. In case you are wondering, mocha was derived from the Port of Mokha, the first place where coffee was produced for commercial consumption.
Recommended for avid coffee drinkers, those who like reading inspiration stories, those who like adventures, those whose interest lies in history, those who like reading while seeping coffee, and those who like reading nonfiction books.
Not recommended for readers who love fiction books, those who are not into biographical works, and those who dislikes stimulants.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Dave Eggers was born on March 12, 1970 in Boston, Massachusetts to an attorney and a school teacher. From Boston, his family moved to Lake Forest, Illinois. He studied journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but was cut short by the unexpected death of his parents.
In the early 1990’s, Eggers began writing as a Salon.com editor while writing a comic strip called Smarter Feller. However, it was in 2000’s that he first published his first books, starting with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). A bestseller, it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. He followed up his success with his first full fictional work, You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002). His other works include The Wild Things (2009), The Circle (2013), and Heroes of the Frontier (2016).
Eggers lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife, Vendela Vida. The couple have two children.