The Monk of Mokha

by Dave Eggers
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2004

Author: Dave Eggers

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Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 352 pp.

Type of work: Biography

Time: 2010s

Locales: United States, Yemen

The Monk of Mokha tells the story of a young Yemeni American who learns about the role that Yemen played in the early history of coffee production. He decides to go to Yemen to try to restore the production of coffee there to its earlier preeminence.

Principal personages

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni American living in San Francisco who decides to try to resurrect the earlier glory of Yemen’s coffee culture

Miriam, his longtime friend, briefly a romantic interest

Hamood al-Khanshali Zafaran al-Eshmali, his grandfather, a patriarchal figure in his region of Yemen

Omar Ghazali, a friend of his family, a prosperous fruit broker in San Francisco who helps to fund his business

Willem Boot, a San Francisco coffee importer who trains him in coffee production

Andrew Nicholson, the American founder of a coffee exporting firm in Yemen

Hifdih Allah al-Hubayshi, a Yemeni trader in coffee and a dominant figure in the contemporary production of coffee there

Yusuf Hamady, head of a coffer grower’s cooperative in Haymah, Yemen.

Ali ibn Omar al-Shadhili, a fifteenth-century Sunni Muslim holy man, “the monk of Mokha” referred to in the title, involved in the early history of coffee production

The Monk of Mokha is a difficult book to classify. Even the acclaimed author, Dave Eggers, takes nearly a page in his preface to list all the things the work is “about,” although a few of these topics never reappear. The book tells the story of a young Yemeni American man from San Francisco who becomes interested in the history of coffee growing in his native land, and who sets out to try to help Yemeni coffee growers recapture their historic place in the production of high quality coffee. So in one sense it is a history of a business enterprise. Since Eggers devotes considerable attention to the Yemeni community in California, it is also a kind of immigrant history or a type of ethnic study. But the book is mostly focused on the life of the central character, Mokhtar Alkhanshali (whom Eggers refers to by his first name throughout), so it is primarily a biography.

Alkhanshali seems like an unlikely prospect to resurrect the historic culture of quality coffee production in Yemen. He was not particularly interested in gourmet coffee, and initially knew nothing of the role that Yemen had played in the earliest days of the coffee trade. As Eggers traces Alkhanshali’s early life, he appears to be a young man who is taking a long time to “find himself.” He alternates between periods of bleak poverty (not even able to afford community college tuition) and times of holding down fairly good jobs. He sold clothes at Banana Republic, became a successful salesman at a Honda dealership, and worked as a “Lobby Ambassador” (a pretentious synonym for doorman) in a luxury high-rise apartment building.

It is Miriam (whose last name is never given in the book), a friend and sometime romantic interest of Alkhanshali’s, who first alerts him to the connection of Yemen to the early coffee trade. In the courtyard of a building across from the Infinity high-rises where he worked, there is a statue of an Arab man drinking a large cup of coffee. Miriam texts Alkhanshali about this, suggesting it must be meaningful and that “Maybe this is your thing.” This brief exchange sparks the beginning of a remarkable chain of events in Alkhanshali’s life, and to say that coffee, and especially coffee from Yemen, becomes his “thing” would be an incredible understatement.Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday

Alkhanshali learns some basic things from his immediate family about early coffee cultivation and marketing in Yemen. His mother tells him Yemen was the first country to export coffee. His own grandfather, he learns, grows coffee trees; Alkhanshali had failed to recognize these when visiting his grandfather because he did not know that coffee beans are actually the seed of a grape-like fruit. He then begins his own research into the history of coffee in Yemen, in which he learns about the titular Monk of Mokha, Ali ibn Omar al-Shadhili. Al-Shadhili lived in the Yemeni town of Mokha in the fifteenth century and was, according to legend, the first person to brew coffee. He and his fellow Sufi monks used the brew to stay awake for religious ceremonies that lasted late into the night.

Eventually, Alkhanshali comes into contact with several people in the world of specialty coffee and the importation of coffee. Alkhanshali decides he will attempt to bring Yemeni coffee production back to prominence, but does not develop a very clear and detailed plan for this. When he shows a friend and advisor a stack of disorganized papers that are his “business plan,” the friend pronounces it “the ghettoest business plan I’ve ever seen.” At a conference for specialty coffee traders, Alkhanshali meets Willem Boot, founder of the coffee consultancy and training company Boot Coffee. Boot tells him that he needs to become a “Q grader,” a trained expert in grading the different varieties of coffee. It takes him several attempts to pass the examination, but he finally does become a certified Q grader. Ironically, given the prominence of Arabia and the nearby African coast in the early history of coffee cultivation, he is believed to be the first Arab person ever to become a Q grader. © Brecht van Maele

The description of coffee growing and the nature of the coffee plant and the coffee tree may be the most interesting part of the book for some readers, although true coffee connoisseurs may already know this background. Producing quality coffee beans is a labor-intensive enterprise. The right varieties of coffee must be selected for the particular location, the “cherries” which contain the bean must be picked at the right time, and the beans must be processed correctly. Yemen once produced very high-quality coffee, but coffee growers there generally lost the knowledge of how to do this, and when Alkhanshali begins his quest, Yemeni coffee is considered a poor-quality product that commands low prices. Many coffee growers in Yemen have switched to growing qat, a plant that produces a mild euphoric reaction when its leaves are chewed. This product is widely used throughout the Middle East, and can be marketed readily locally, so producers do not have to deal with brokers and exporters. To produce the quantities of high quality coffee beans needed for a successful venture, some of those farmers will have to be persuaded to switch back to growing coffee.

Eggers describes the areas in Yemen where coffee was grown as beautiful, fertile lands, much in contrast to the bleak image many people have of the Arabian peninsula. Alkhanshali makes several trips to Yemen, first to learn about the areas where coffee is produced, then to try to persuade the growers to take the care needed to produce quality coffee, and then finally, to arrange for export of the superior coffee that is being produced.

When it is time to ship the first crop of high quality beans from his producers in Yemen, the country is in the midst of a civil war, which greatly complicates getting a container of coffee beans shipped to the United States. Eggers’s presentation of this part of the story leaves something to be desired. The reader never learns what is going on in this war or why it is happening, only that one faction is trying to unseat another, and one side is supported by Saudi Arabia, whose air force makes bombing runs in Yemen. Another topic that is largely left unexplored is religion and its influence in the region (and by extension the coffee industry), even though Alkhanshali is presented as a devout Muslim.

Through all of the struggles in getting his crop and himself out of Yemen, Alkhanshali triumphs, talking his way out of sticky situations, giving a bribe here and there to open shut doors, and skirting very real dangers. Since Eggers describes the difficulty Alkhanshali has in getting his investors to release their money, one wonders where all this cash comes from. A reader expecting a popularized depiction of the mechanics of Alkhanshali’s business, in the vein of Michael Lewis’s work, will be sorely disappointed. Perhaps a more significant issue is that throughout, Alkhanshali is depicted as a larger than life character, although he springs from humble roots. Eggers wants to present him as a dreamer who made a crazy idea work, and the reader is meant to see him as a hero. But somewhat like the hero in a series of thriller novels, the reader knows Alkhanshali must win through in the end, so some of the drama is diminished in the latter parts of the book.

In his preface, Eggers says that, among many other things, this book is about “the strange preponderance of Yemenis in the liquor store trade of California,” and about how the work of Yemenis in California’s Central Valley agricultural region “echoes their lost history of farming in Yemen.” No liquor store owners of any background figure prominently in the story, and the closest thing to a Yemeni Central Valley farmer is a family friend of Alkhanshali who is a fruit broker in San Francisco. Why these things are brought up but never dealt with remains a mystery. Generally, however, the book is interesting and engagingly written. It quickly became a New York Times best seller. Most reviews ranged from positive to gushing, although some criticized Eggers’s politicizing of the story. Michael Lindgren, in a Washington Post review, did come close to accusing Eggers of cultural appropriation in his use of Alkhanshali’s story to make his own points about American society.

Eggers has dealt with the Horatio Alger–like story of the poor immigrant who does well in America in some of his previous works. His nonfiction book Zeitoun (2005) is an account of a Syrian American who heroically aided neighbors in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, but later was arrested because of suspected ties to terrorism that proved to be unfounded. In his novel What is the What (2007), Eggers deals with the story of one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan who found success in America. In The Monk of Mokha, however, while Alkhanshali’s hard work and insights and imagination are to be appreciated, his success does not seem to really convey a heroic triumph.

Back in San Francisco, waiting for the first shipment of his coffee to arrive on a container ship, Alkhanshali becomes a co-renter in an extravagantly expensive apartment in the Infinity complex, where he used to be a doorman. Presumably this is true, but in a novel this kind of denouement would feel a little cheap and contrived. Alkhanshali has created a successful business by the end of the book, but the reader may be left wondering if he has assimilated as just one more newly rich, materialistic American businessperson.

Review Sources

  • Deb, Siddhartha. “A Model Businessman: What Dave Eggers Misses in His Story of a Yemeni-American Man’s Rise.” Review of The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. The New Republic,4 Apr. 2018, newrepublic.com/article/147377/model-businessman-dave-eggers-misses-story Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.
  • Lindgren, Michael. “Dave Eggers Tells the Story of the Most Dangerous Cup of Coffee in the World.” Review of The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. The Washington Post, 29 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/dave-eggers-tells-the-story-of-the-most-dangerous-cup-of-coffee-in-the-world/2018/01/26/4128bc6c-006f-11e8-bb03-722769454f82_story.html. Accessed September 16, 2018.
  • Sehgal, Parul. “‘The Monk of Mokha’ is Dave Eggers’s Latest PG-13 Story about the American Dream.” Review of The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. The New York Times, 23 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/23/books/review-dave-eggers-monk-of-mokha.html. Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.
  • Spanberg, Erik. “‘The Monk of Mokha’ Follows the True-Life Adventures of an Immigrant Turned Coffee-Entrepreneur.” Review of The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. The Christian Science Monitor, 30 Jan. 2018, www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2018/0130/The-Monk-of-Mokha-follows-the-true-life-adventures-of-an-immigrant-turned-coffee-entrepreneur. Accessed 16 Sept. 2018.

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