“Ask anyone on the street where coffee had been born, and they might say Paris. They might say Africa. They might say Colombia or Java. But who would say Yemen?”
For most of his young life Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the engaging Yemeni-American subject of The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers’ latest nonfiction opus, neither knew nor particularly cared. The oldest of seven in a tight-knit immigrant clan, he was 8 when the family moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco — landing in the famously crime-riddled Tenderloin, a lingering pockmark on the pretty face of a relentlessly gentrified city. If not exactly an obedient student, Mokhtar had his own kind of drive; a series of teenage sales jobs led eventually to a coveted position as a doorman (or in million-dollar-condo parlance, “lobby ambassador”) in one of the Bay Area’s most desirable buildings. It was there one day that a friend pointed out the statue across the street of a Middle Eastern man in a turban and flowing, flower-strewn robes, drinking deeply from a cup. Intrigued, Mokhtar began his own research, and found that the humble coffee bean — technically, it’s the seed inside a cherry-red fruit — could indeed be traced back more than half a millennium to his ancestral homeland. If Yemen was truly where coffee was born, could it not be reborn there, bringing income and independence to the citizens for whom it should have been a natural legacy? And why couldn’t he be the man to make it happen? That idle curiosity would lead to an obsession that took him far across the globe, from the lush green hills of Northern California to the dusty streets of Djibouti and beyond, through tasting rooms and tribal lands, hostage crises (yes, plural), and drone-bombed war zones.
Even as Mokha‘s wildly improbable arc follows the contours of a classic Horatio Alger tale, it also taps into a particular kind of First World mania: the largely Western fixation on turning the most elemental things — water (spring-fed, ionized, straight from a glacier), salt (smoked, flaked, Himalayan), even milk (or at least its coconut-hemp cousins) — into their own fussy, fancy industry. And few everyday totems have sparked a devotion as fervent as the cult of coffee, considered less a hot brown beverage than a form of secular religion by the fine-palated faithful willing to pay upward of $100 a pound for the privilege of premium caffeine.
Eggers makes it clear he isn’t one of them, though the McSweeney’s founder and prolific author does manage to illuminate the more arcane bits of history and production without devolving into Guy You Wish You Hadn’t Started Talking to at the Party. It helps that, as a writer who moves consistently between novels and nonfiction, he’s able to harness his considerable storytelling powers to shape Alkhanshali’s real life into such a compelling cinematic narrative. And that his muse somehow comes off as both a relatably messy kid and a modern-day swashbuckler, flawed and funny and refreshingly real. It wouldn’t be wrong to call Mokhtar an entrepreneur or an altruist, but he feels like much more than that, too: a living distillation of the enduring, endlessly elastic power of the American dream. A-