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15 February 2018

Book Review: The Monk of Mokha

Dave Eggers’ new book The Monk of Mokha tells the remarkable and inspiring story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni American in search of a dream — until, after a few false starts, he stumbles down the rabbit hole of speciality coffee. After growing up in San Francisco’s tough Tenderloin neighbourhood, Alkhanshali knows he wants to do something more with his life but doesn’t have a plan. Then one day, a friend tells him to check out the statue of “a Yemeni dude drinking a big cup of coffee” opposite the fancy apartment building where he is working as a doorman. The statue — of a man who “seemed to be some mash-up of Ethiopian and Yemeni" — turns out to be located in the lobby of a building built by the Hills brothers, whose company had a key role in popularising coffee in the United States throughout the 20th century.

Intrigued, Alkhanshali begins to research Yemen’s role in the origins of coffee: the country is home to the first coffee cultivation and organised coffee trade, but its exports have since withered to a negligible level. At the same time, Alkhanshali learns about the intricacies of contemporary speciality coffee production and preparation. His training ground is first the Sunday morning cupping sessions at Blue Bottle’s Oakland headquarters and then Boot Coffee, where he becomes the ever-present, enthusiastic apprentice of Willem Boot.

And soon, the apprentice has a plan: he will create the world’s first Yemeni speciality coffee company, empowering farmers and growers and producing high-quality coffee beans, while maintaining high standards of ethics and transparency. To do this, Alkhanshali must first become a Q grader — a speciality coffee expert qualified to rate and score Arabica coffee — and pass a test of 22 parts, some of which “would seem to the generalist or everyday coffee enthusiast insane”, Eggers notes. And even then, starting a company in Yemen during a civil war was never going to be easy, and along the way, Alkhanshali must evade Saudi bombs, Houthi rebels and other dangers besides. I cannot imagine that anyone has ever gone through as much adversity to attend the annual Specialty Coffee Association conference as Mokhtar did.

Eggers’ narrative is beautifully written and hugely compelling. His description of the history of coffee is fascinating, entertaining and rich with colour, his language wonderfully evocative, from the coffee beans like “piles of red cherries like huge ruby-red beads” to the Ethiopian shepherd Khaldi’s over-caffeinated “jumping, prancing, braying” sheep. But most of all, Eggers conveys Mokhtar’s passion, drive and determination in his quest to make his dream a reality. It’s an inspiring story — one I didn’t want to end — I wanted to spend more time in the company of this incredible man who made his dream into a reality.

Naturally, the first thing I did after finishing the book was to Google Mokhtar’s company, Port of Mokha, and read more about what happened after the events depicted in the book. The coffee isn’t terribly easy to get hold of in the UK, but I hope that the success of The Monk of Mokhtar will make it more accessible. Otherwise, I hope to be able to track it down in the United States sometime. As for Mokhtar Alkhanshali himself, London readers can find him at an event to discuss the book and his story at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, on 5 March. I might well see you there!

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