Musings on The Monk of Mokha

The only real complaint I have about The Monk of Mokha, a new book by the incomparable Dave Eggers, is this: it ended too soon.   I packed it for my recent flight to Nicaragua, and read the whole thing before I landed, leaving myself nothing to read for the rest of the week.

Eggers tells the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni-American born into trying circumstances in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, where he learned to hustle but steadfastly refused to learn much else, shirking schoolwork in favor of all the other temptations making claims on the attention of a boy prone to mischief in a city crowded with temptations.  More specifically, it tells the impossible-but-true of how Mokhtar stumbled out of his early-20s ennui into coffee, tumbled down the coffee rabbit hole and chased an audacious dream of ushering the ancient Yemeni coffee sector into the effervescent 21st-century specialty coffee scene.  The tension in the story comes from the formidable obstacles that stood between Mokhtar and his dream.  Trifles, really.  Like, he didn’t know the first thing about coffee.  And he was broke.  Worse than broke, actually, he was in debt.  Oh, and this: Yemen, the place where he was going to source his coffee, was in the grips of a bloody civil war.

Mokhtar emerges as part Quixote, part Magoo, part Bond, chasing a ghost recklessly into the path of car bombings, aerial bombings, rebel uprisings and a popular counter-insurgency, only to talk his way out of trouble again and again like a tested agent.  Sometimes, Eggers suggests, his pursuit of his dream was used by others to advance their own dark ends.  Other times, Mokhtar dragged unknowing accomplices with him into harm’s way, but he never left a man behind.

This is clearly a love story: a breathtaking, heart-pounding, swashbuckling love story, to be sure, but unmistakably a love story.  It is the story of Mokhtar’s love of the idea of Yemeni coffee, and his stubborn refusal to bow to fear or pragmatism as he pursues it.

There are minor points throughout the book related to coffee farming or processing with which a coffee professional may choose to quibble, but not me.  I will take issue here with only one brief passage in the book: the one in which Eggers marvels at the number of coffee growers, which he suggests reaches the “tens of thousands.”

The number of people who grow coffee, of course, is an order of magnitude larger, not tens of thousands but tens of millions. And Eggers doesn’t even consider the tens of millions more who earn a living more precariously as coffee farmworkers.

But if Eggers underreports the scope of participation in the coffee-growing enterprise, he is guilty only of faulty accounting.  It is hard to imagine he would do anything to undercut the heroic efforts of the coffee growers he has come to respect every bit as much as Mokhtar has.

In the end, Mokhtar isn’t the only one in this love story who falls hard for coffee.  In researching and telling Mokhtar’s story, Eggers gets hooked, too.  This remarkable and moving passage is testament to the work behind every cup of coffee we enjoy, and evidence of Eggers’ own conversion.

Everywhere along the line there were people involved.  Farmers who planted and monitored and cared for and pruned and fertilized their trees.  Pickers who walked among the rows of plants, in the mountains’ thin air, taking the cherries, only the red cherries, placing them one by one in their buckets and baskets.  Workers who processed the cherries, most of that work done by hand, too, fingers removing the sticky mucilage from each bean.  There were the humans who dried the beans.  Who turned them on the drying beds to make sure they dried evenly.  Then those who sorted the dried beans, the good beans from the bad.  Then the humans who bagged these sorted beans.  Bagged them in bags that kept them fresh, bags that retained the flavor without adding unwanted tastes and aromas.  The humans who tossed the bagged beans on trucks.  The humans who took the bags off the trucks and put them into containers and onto ships.  The humans who took the beans from the ships and put them on different trucks.  The humans who took the bags from the trucks and brought them into the roasteries in Tokyo and Chicago and Trieste.  The humans who roasted each batch.  The humans who packed smaller batches into smaller bags for purchase by those who might want to grind and brew at home.  Or the humans who did the grinding at the coffee shop and then painstakingly brewed and poured the coffee or espresso or cappuccino.

Any given cup of coffee, then, might have been touched by twenty hands, from farm to cup, yet these cups only cost two or three dollars.  Even a four-dollar cup was miraculous, given how many people were involved, and how much individual human attention and expertise was lavished on the beans dissolved in that four-dollar cup.

The author admits that he was a specialty coffee skeptic when he started his work on the book. One of the not inconsequential number of people who aren’t seduced by the elaborate rituals of specialty or the passion of its adherents, but put off by the fussiness and, perhaps occasionally, repelled by the sanctimony of people who are passionate about the craft of coffee. But Eggers is finally won over, both by Mokhtar, in his single-minded devotion to it, the millions of people who produce it with their hands and by coffee culture itself.

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Purchase copies of The Monk of Mokha signed by the author and Mokhtar Alkhanshali HERE while they last.