In 2013, Mokhtar Alkhanshali was a twentysomething San Franciscan who dreamed of reviving the coffee industry in his family’s native Yemen. He was savvy enough to draft a formal business plan, but the potential threats he cited would give a Fortune 500 CEO pause: “Al-Qaeda, corrupt government, pirates in the Red Sea, tribal violence.”
In The Monk of Mokha (Knopf, 323 pp., ★★★½ out of four), Dave Eggers chronicles Alkhanshali’s headstrong, harrowing and ultimately inspirational journey to launch a business in a country descending into civil war.
Along the way, Eggers delivers a concise history of coffee and its roots in Yemen, reports on a coffee culture where consumers can be as persnickety as sommeliers, and sketches out the strife that has devastated the Middle Eastern country since 2011’s Arab Spring.
Alkhanshali is an engaging figure to connect those threads. Raised in San Francisco’s poor Tenderloin neighborhood, he was streetwise and a born salesman. “The Tenderloin taught you to think quick, talk fast,” Eggers writes. “You had to listen and assimilate. If you sounded ignorant, you got taken.”
After a semester of college, though, Alkhanshali was stuck as a doorman at a San Francisco high-rise, looking at the former Hills Brothers headquarters across the street. The statue of the coffee company’s Arab mascot motivated him to put his hustle to work. Yemen had the farms and people eager to work, he learned, but not the infrastructure and quality control. Better quality would mean better pay.
Eggers points out that our jokes about overpriced lattes are misguided. Because coffee’s supply chain is so complex — harvesting, selecting, roasting, shipping — most cups are likely underpriced. “Even a four-dollar cup was miraculous, given how many people were involved,” he writes. “Chances were some person — or many people, or hundreds of people — along the line were being taken, underpaid, exploited.”
Alkhanshali had the bad luck of starting his business in earnest in late 2014, as rebel Houthis in northern Yemen took over the country. Neighboring Saudi Arabia destroyed airport runways, and internal fighting made driving inside the country treacherous.
In plainspoken but gripping prose, Eggers describes Alkhanshali’s desperate effort to get out of the country to finalize his first shipment. Houthis routinely detained him and his cohort. But, Eggers suggests, Alkhanshali’s Tenderloin-bred gift of gab helped him finally escape through Mokha, a Yemeni port town that was one of the first coffee hubs.
“The whole planet drinks coffee, but it was born here,” he tells one man who’s detained him. “We should be proud of this. The world should know this.”
It does, now: Alkhanshali’s company, Port of Mokha, sells coffee online and in high-end cafés. Eggers can’t disguise his enthusiasm for his subject in the book’s closing pages, as Alkhanshali’s first shipment arrives in San Francisco Bay.
That pride echoes the inclusive, moral sensibility of Eggers’ novels like A Hologram for the King and The Circle. That style works effectively with Alkhanshali’s story, too: It dives deep into a crisis but delivers a jolt of uplift as well.