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Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: Yemen and Coffee and Inspiration

Dave Eggers is one of those rare writers who can make me care intensely about something I knew nothing about before. He did it most notably with his novel What Is The What, about the Lost Boys of the Sudanese Civil War. And here, in his latest narrative non-fiction The Monk of Mokha, he pulls off the trick again with Yemen, coffee, and an inspirational, enterprising young man named Mokhtar who wants to bring Yemeni coffee back to its former glory.

You may not be aware — I sure wasn't, and neither was Mokhtar, until his moment of inspiration — that coffee was "invented" in Yemen, by a dude who was dubbed the Monk of Mokha (Mokha is a port city on the Red Sea in Yemen). Even though people used coffee beans in Ethiopia as stimulants prior, this fella was the first person to brew coffee.

But so, our real-life hero Mokhtar, an American of Yemeni descent living in San Francisco, casts about for what to do with his life — he's sold cars, he's worked as a doorman at an expensive apartment building, he's been a teenage hooligan. One day, he notices a statue of a guy drinking coffee outside the apartment building, and has his flash of inspiration. He begins studying the history of coffee, learns how to be a Q-grader (assigning coffee a score based on taste), and travels to his ancestral homeland to try to import specialty Yemeni coffee back to the US.

But to build a viable coffee business, Mokhtar has an uphill battle on a number of fronts. Most Yemeni farmers have switched to growing qat (or khat), the stimulant leaf popular in Arab culture. The farmers that do grow coffee sell it in bulk as a commodity instead of as a specialty product. And these farmers use poor and antiquated methods for harvesting. And finally, oh yeah, there's a civil war happening!

Mokhtar persists. When some samples he brings back score very highly, he knows he has a business. He just has to convince the farmers to sell to him (though he doesn't yet have the capital), harvest, process, and store the beans, and then ship several tons of coffee out of a war torn country. No problem!

Eventually, the war becomes literally life threatening. So Mokhtar's last challenge is simply to escape Yemen with his life by any means necessary. If you'd sort of been just trudging through the book before, this is where the narrative really gains some speed. It's as fast-paced and pulse-pounding as an adventure novel. But again, it's real!

So even if you don't care a whit about Yemen or coffee, this is still a great read. (All most Americans seem to know about Yemen is what they learned from Friends.) You do have to keep reminding yourself at times that this is a true story — inasmuch as any narrative non-fiction this detailed can be true. But it's an inspiring story, to be sure. 

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