The Monk of Mokha
From the best-selling author of The Circle, the 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--and his riveting tale of escape.Mokhtar Alkhanshali grew up in San Francisco, one of seven siblings brought up by Yemeni immigrants in a tiny apartment. At age twenty-four, unable to pay for college, he works as a doorman, until a statue of an Arab raising a cup of coffee awakens something in him. He sets out to learn the rich history of coffee in Yemen and the complex art of tasting and identifying varietals. He travels to Yemen and visits countless farms, collecting samples, eager to bring improved cultivation methods to the countryside. And he is on the verge of success when civil war engulfs Yemen in 2015. The US Embassy closes, Saudi bombs began to rain down on the country, and Mokhtar is trapped in Yemen. Desperate to escape, he embarks on a passage that has him negotiating with dueling political factions and twice kidnapped at gunpoint. With no other options, he hires a skiff to take him, and his coffee samples, across the Red Sea. A heart-pounding true story that weaves together the history of coffee, the ongoing Yemeni civil war, and the courageous journey of a young man--a Muslim and a US citizen--following the most American of dreams.

The Monk of Mokha Details

TitleThe Monk of Mokha
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJan 30th, 2018
PublisherKnopf
Rating
GenreNonfiction, Biography, Biography Memoir

The Monk of Mokha Review

  • Marie
    January 1, 1970
    Eggers was the reason why I picked up this book—someone at work handed me an ARC and I was like sure why not? I didn’t even realize it was non-fiction until after the first chapterBut holy cow, it was spectacular. It’s about a Yemeni-American who wants to bring high quality Yemen coffee back to the US and the rest of the world. I had no idea about the history of coffee and wouldn’t have thought I would find it so interesting, but Eggers writes the history portions with his famous storytelling to Eggers was the reason why I picked up this book—someone at work handed me an ARC and I was like sure why not? I didn’t even realize it was non-fiction until after the first chapterBut holy cow, it was spectacular. It’s about a Yemeni-American who wants to bring high quality Yemen coffee back to the US and the rest of the world. I had no idea about the history of coffee and wouldn’t have thought I would find it so interesting, but Eggers writes the history portions with his famous storytelling touch. Not to mention that Mokha’s story is absolutely crazy. My only complaint is a small one—I thought the ending didn’t have enough detail. Then again, the story is still going on. If you have even the slightest interest in coffee or Yemen, it’s a good book for you. If nothing else, it will give you some good tidbits to wow people at the next party you attend.
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  • Krista
    January 1, 1970
    Conditions in Yemen were deteriorating. Virtually no goods were being shipped out of the country. Activity at the ports was concentrated on importing essentials. Medicine was scarce and the vast majority of the country was suffering from food insecurity. The UN considered Yemen on the brink of famine. No one was prioritizing the export of coffee to international specialty roasters. The Monk of Mokha is a work of narrative nonfiction by noted storyteller Dave Eggers: Focussing on the compelling Conditions in Yemen were deteriorating. Virtually no goods were being shipped out of the country. Activity at the ports was concentrated on importing essentials. Medicine was scarce and the vast majority of the country was suffering from food insecurity. The UN considered Yemen on the brink of famine. No one was prioritizing the export of coffee to international specialty roasters. The Monk of Mokha is a work of narrative nonfiction by noted storyteller Dave Eggers: Focussing on the compelling story of one Yemeni-American's efforts to reboot his ancestral homeland's coffee industry, this book provides a microhistory of coffee itself, an overview of the often overlooked country of Yemen, an introduction to America's “third wave” of coffee production/consumption, and the whole is used as a progressive lens through which to evaluate the ways in which we weigh the value of someone's work. What I found in this book was certainly interesting and informative, I just wanted more: more on coffee, more on Yemen, and I especially felt this to be a lost opportunity to bring the world up to date on what Amnesty International refers to as “The Forgotten War” (but I suppose if Eggers dwelled too much on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it would be hard to craft a feel good story out of using the country's bombed-out ports for exporting coffee to international specialty roasters so rich folks can spend fifteen bucks on a cup of brew). Still, this is a dramatic true life story that certainly demonstrates Eggers' stated thesis: “how these bridge-makers exquisitely and perhaps most bravely embody this nation's reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome”. Note: I read an Advanced Reading Copy and quotes used may not be in their final forms (I just can't help myself). Four stars can be considered a rounding up after much mental back and forth.So, who is “The Monk of Mokha”? (Shaykh Ali Ibn Omar Alqurashi) al-Shadhili, a Sufi monk, had gone to Harar, married an Ethiopian woman and brought the coffee plant – which hadn't been cultivated yet; it was still wild – back to Yemen. Here, in Mokha, he invented the dark brew now known as coffee. Local lore had it that it was al-Shadhili who was responsible for Mokha's ascendance to the center of the coffee trade. And it was he who introduced coffee to the traders who came to Mokha, and who extolled its medicinal qualities. This little known history – that coffee was first processed and brewed in Yemen – became a point of pride, and eventually a bit of an obsession, to a young and directionless Yemeni-American who was raised in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco by hardworking immigrant parents. When Mokhtar Al-Khanshali first heard of the monk al-Shadhili, and later learned from his mother that coffee cultivation went back generations in their family, Mokhtar decided to educate himself; eventually becoming the first Yemini Q Grader of Arabica coffee beans in the world (a prestigious and internationally recognised designation). Whenever he asked people in the industry, however, about the quality of Yemeni coffee, he always heard that it was particularly terrible; only suitable for dumping on the commodity market. Not willing to accept that, Mokhtar went to Yemen and met with farmers; eventually teaching them how to properly cultivate, harvest, and prepare their crops for export. When Mokhtar eventually got a decent sample out of the country – in a thrilling episode as Yemen descended into civil war – it went on to garner the highest rating ever given to a coffee strain. Today, Mokhtar imports tonnes of Yemeni coffee beans into the US – each variety of which can be traced back to its farm of origin, where its producer is given a fair and decent profit – and after processing and roasting in his own facility (Port of Mokha), Moktar sells this superior product to the world (a three 4 oz sample variety pack will cost you $158 US).Now, I would never spend something like twenty dollars Canadian on a single cup of coffee, but this “third wave” is apparently about approaching coffee the same way a sommelier evaluates wines: when the best in the world is identified, the discerning consumer should be expected to pay more for it; the producer should be expected to profit from providing excellence. And as this story is presented – Mokhtar pays his farmers many times what they used to receive, easing their poverty and freeing them from loansharks and the exploitative commodities market – this seems like an objective good. On the other hand, someone needs to be able to afford to buy coffee at that price, and Eggers uses this book to sneer at class stratification, using the San Francisco setting to demonstrate the unfair chasm between the haves and the have-nots. The reader is supposed to join in Eggers' outrage that Mokhtar (a college dropout without a life plan and sleeping on his parents' floor at twenty-five years old) takes a job as a doorman at a luxury high rise, making $18/hr to open the door for people who won't sully their hands to do so for themselves: By hand, Mokhtar couldn't open both doors. They were too heavy and too big. With the button, though, the resident could stride through a fantastically wide and welcoming gateway of glass, unobstructed. They could enter the lobby, and Moktar, the Lobby Ambassador, could greet them. He'd be happy to greet them. It cost him nothing to look up and say hello. But to leap from the desk, to rush over, eager and panting, only to push open a door that could be opened with a button – it was a self-evident outrage and an assault on his pride. Especially when the residents passed through the lobby, entered the elevators and flew up, to apartments high above him, places he'd never seen. A self-evident outrage and an assault on his pride to do what he was well-paid to do? I don't think I can follow where Eggers is trying to lead me with that. As a Canadian, I have no stakes in American politics, but it didn't escape my notice that Eggers writes vaguely of the “high paranoia of the Bush years”, and frets about the future for Muslims under Trump (a man, Eggers stresses, who was not elected by the people but whose presidency was only made possible by the electoral college), but while the actual indignities that Mokhtar experiences (racial profiling at airports, the US State Department refusing to evacuate American citizens when war breaks out in Yemen, the frequent American drone strikes within Yemen and the collateral civilian deaths, the Saudis using American-built weapons to bomb Yemen) all happened during the Obama years, Eggers doesn't link his name to any of these specific policies. This book has a particular political slant, and I just want to acknowledge it. Still, this is an interesting and informative story, told well, and less than four stars would feel peevish.
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