Dave Eggers’ ‘The Monk of Mokha’ explores a coffee-flavored American dream

A young immigrant from Yemen becomes a coffee exporter in Eggers’ latest nonfiction page-turner.

“The Monk of Mokha”

by Dave Eggers

Knopf, 352 pp., $28.95

“You’re in front my face.” That’s a rough translation of a traditional Yemeni expression — something people in that country say to others to let them know they are valued.

And in Dave Eggers’ riveting new work of nonfiction, “The Monk of Mokha,” that’s what 26-year-old Mokhtar Alkhanshali tells the women he has hired to work in the new business he has set up in Sana’a, Yemen. A self-styled coffee exporter, Mokhtar has returned to his family’s homeland at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula with the dream of reviving Yemen’s ancient coffee-growing traditions.

But Mokhtar is as green to the business as the coffee beans he wants sorted out of the shipments his new hires are inspecting.

Author appearance

Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali

The author and subject of “The Monk of Mokha” will speak at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway, Seattle; $37 (includes copy of book); tickets available through strangertickets.com.

Raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, a bright guy but an indifferent student, Mokhtar bounced around in a series of jobs, dabbled in college and, by his mid-20s, has little to show for himself.

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He is working as a doorman at a San Francisco high-rise when he gets inspiration one day from an unlikely source. He notices a statue in the plaza across the street. Erected to honor the Hills Brothers Coffee Co. that once had occupied that spot, the statue is a 9-foot-tall, bronze rendition of that company’s original mascot, a man in flowing robes, turban and curly-toed slippers, sipping coffee from a cup he holds aloft. According to an accompanying placard, the Hills brothers had launched their coffee-importing business in the late 1800s as Arabian Coffee and Spice Mills.

It is Mokhtar’s light-bulb moment.

When he goes home that night and tells his mother about his Arabian discovery, she informs him that his own family has grown coffee for generations. Not only that — Yemenis were the first, anywhere, to drink coffee — “You didn’t know this?”

He didn’t, but now he wants to learn more. He discovers that ancient Ethiopians made weak tea from coffee beans, but it wasn’t until the early 14th century that a holy man living in the Yemeni port of Mokha brewed coffee as the wakeful beverage we know today. Coffee houses sprang up throughout the region, and as coffee became increasingly commodified, it was appropriated by colonial powers.

Centuries later, and half a world away, Mokhtar decides that his mission is to restore his family’s homeland to its rightful place as a coffee-growing powerhouse.

Eggers traces this young man’s journey as he shuttles between California and Yemen, coaxing coffee roasters, investors, aid agencies and farmers toward his vision of a revitalized coffee-growing industry.

Once Mokhtar proves that Yemeni farmers can produce superior coffee beans, he still needs to find a way to ship them to the United States. He identifies a coffee conference in Seattle as the best place to find assistance.

But just as he’s about to depart Sana’a for Seattle, civil war breaks out across Yemen. The Saudis are dropping bombs, the airport shuts down, different armed factions erect checkpoints along the roads, and pirates roam the waters off the coast.

“The Monk of Mokha” is a page-turning mash-up of genres — coming-of-age, business how-to (and in some cases, how-not-to), and international political thriller.

This is the third book Eggers has written to focus on the amazing true-life stories of recent immigrants to America. “What Is the What” (2006) followed the difficult path of one of Sudan’s Lost Boys. “Zeitoun” (2009) focused on a Syrian-American house-painter who gets caught between Hurricane Katrina and the war on terror.

Caffeinated Seattle readers should embrace this third book not only as a terrific read, but also as a relevant backgrounder to their daily habit.

When you lift that next cup of coffee to your lips, remember to put the growers “in front your face.”

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