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How one man risked execution to produce some of the world’s most sought-after coffee

Dave Eggers’ latest book explores how American-Yemeni businessman Mokhtar Alkhanshali went from working in a Honda factory to creating an adored hipster coffee brand.

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
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 327pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist