In recent years, a kind of money madness has infected coffee consumption in the United States. Just one cup of Port of Mokha espresso, as brought to you by the American-Yemeni businessman Mokhtar Alkhanshali, will cost you $16. Fortunately, a cardamom biscuit (made to Mokhtar’s mother’s recipe) is included in the price. But still, what kind of a person needs to be seen ordering a $16 shot of coffee? Yemeni coffee is no ordinary Starbucks brew; it is available only at the hipsterish Blue Bottle shops for Arabica bean connoisseurs in the US and is the privilege of a few high-earners.
The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers’s 12th book, tells the story of how Mokhtar (as the author calls him) came to distribute high-end Yemeni coffee in the US and, relatedly, the difficulties experienced by second-generation Yemeni and other Muslim Arab immigrants under the current US president. Donald Trump is never mentioned in The Monk of Mokha, but his travel ban on Muslim nations (Yemen among them) runs like the black line in a lobster through the book.
Eggers has been here before. Zeitoun (2009), the true story of a Syrian-American builder and decorator adrift in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, offered a similar journalistic amalgam of biography and social commentary. His new book, no less keen to give voice to the marginalised, chronicles Mokhtar’s early years in the “hardscrabble” Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where he worked variously as a “lobby ambassador” (doorman), night security guard, Honda factory-hand and Banana Republic clothes shop assistant. According to Eggers, Yemenis first came to the US in the late 1960s; having found employment in the automobile plants of Detroit and as fruit-pickers in California, they now increasingly work as janitors or in the convenience store sector.
With little money or knowledge of coffee-growing, Mokhtar embarked on a physically dangerous business venture in his ancestral homeland. The Monk of Mokha is a thriller of sorts. In northern Yemen in late 2014, Mokhtar risks rebel Houthi aggression and the threat of summary execution in an attempt to transport his first coffee samples to an all-important trade show in Seattle. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has blown up airport runways and inter-tribal fighting has made driving hazardous.
From his teenage days in the Tenderloin, however, Mokhtar had learned to think quickly on his feet. “You had to listen and assimilate. If you sounded ignorant, you got taken,” Eggers writes in his characteristic no-frills prose. Thus Mokhtar is able to talk his way out of Houthi captivity, and display a cool head when US customs threaten to impound the choice Arabica beans concealed in his luggage. In spite of the odd John le Carré-flavour cliché (“The roar of an approaching vehicle snapped them out of their reverie”), Eggers ratchets up the tension nicely.
Along the way, we learn much about Yemeni coffee bean farms, roasting techniques, and different aromas and tastes. Coffee production in the country is 500 years old, apparently, but Yemenis have been unable to export it profitably owing to government corruption, Red Sea pirate activity, tribal violence and, since the early 1990s, the presence of al-Qaeda, which blew up a hotel in Aden commonly used by US marines. With his terrier-like determination to succeed as a businessman, Mokhtar persuades Yemeni farmers to cultivate harvests of the Arabica bean instead of the khat leaf narcotic (banned in the US). He becomes a certified “Q grader”, or professional arbiter of coffee quality, and is thrilled when Port of Mokha is awarded the highest rating in Coffee Review, the trade bible. Flushed with pride, he wears a T-shirt with the slogan “Make coffee, not war”.
The Monk of Mokha, a paean to aspirational immigrant capitalism in the US, is the result of “hundreds” of hours of interviews conducted by Eggers with Mokhtar over the course of three years. The book is not without its clunky-sounding prose (“fanned the flames of Islamophobia”, “warring in Yemen was again in full swing”). And the author’s appropriation of a Yemeni immigrant’s life for literary purposes might strike some as presumptuous or even patronising. Mokhtar is accorded a proper dignity on the page, however, and is never ventriloquised crassly into life.
Always accessible, Eggers charts the ambitions and pressures of immigration in present-day America, and remains an important commentator on our mixed-up, multi-ethnic world.
The Monk of Mokha
Hamish Hamilton, 327pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry