I love stumbling upon a book and being exposed to a fascinating concept I had never thought much about before. In this case, the concept is the world of high-end specialty coffee. How it is grown, harvested, processed, brewed, and then rated is fascinating. The journey Mokhtar Alkhanshali endured to bring the exceptional Yemen coffee to the rest of the world is filled with enough intrigue, plot twists, and brushes with danger to fill a summer action movie. But The Monk of Mokha is not fiction, this story is true.
The book starts in 2012 with 24 year old Yemeni-American Mokhtar [fittingly pronounced like mocha] Alkhanshali at a low point. He has tried many different careers in his San Francisco home but none of them seem to fit. He is fiercely intelligent, charismatic, and is hungry to find something he can be passionate about. He finds it in coffee. One day a friend points out a statue across the street from where he works in San Francisco depicting the Monk of Mokha, an ancient Yemeni man said to have been the first to roast coffee. Intrigued, he sets out to learn all he can about coffee including its history and how it is made. This journey takes him to Blue Bottle, a specialty coffee supplier and school for connoisseurs to become Q-graders, experts who are to coffee as sommeliers are to wine. Soon he is fully immersed in the specialty coffee world and learning the secrets of growing, roasting, and brewing.
As he learns more and more about coffee, he becomes convinced that his destiny is to bring Yemeni coffee out of the war-torn country and back into the spotlight of the world, improving the lives of the exploited farmers in the process. Mokhtar has visited Yemen before and still has family there. So slowly over months and years, he builds a network in Yemen. Visiting as many coffee farms as he can, Mokhtar brings back samples to be tested in the United States for viability. As Mokhtar is preparing to export the first shipment from Yemen, the Houthi tribe invades the capital of Sana’a deposing the existing President. Saudi Arabia, aligned with the former President, proceeds to bomb Houthi positions and Yemen infrastructure plunging Yemen into a destructive war that continues today. Amidst the bombs and clashes, Mokhtar clings to his dream to bring Yemen coffee to the world, or possibly die trying.
Dave Eggers presents Mokhtar’s story without artifice, letting the extraordinary tale speak for itself. The history of coffee and how it spread to every corner of the world is fascinating. It is easy to understand how it inspired Mokhtar’s imagination spinning his life into a direction he never could have imagined. Mokhtar’s drive and quest to bring legitimacy back to Yemen coffee growers, and improve the lives of the farmers is inspiring. That it is happening in a country that has been locked in a civil war for years is all the more incredible.
The Monk of Mokha follows Mokhtar through the ups and downs of going from a novice to an expert in coffee, his difficulty in finding investors for this plan to import from Yemen, and his adventures in Yemen just trying to stay alive while bombs are dropping all around. The last section of the book is a race against time to escape from Yemen with a large batch of coffee samples, risking his life repeatedly, enduring repeated capture and duplicitous officials all so that Mokhtar can reach a specialty coffee conference in Seattle on time. The genius of the book is that as absurd as that sounds, by this point we know how crucial that Seattle conference is, and why Mokhtar and his companions risk their lives to escape Yemen with the samples.
The Monk of Mokha is an enthralling, riveting “American dream” narrative filled with so many twists and turns of fortune I had to keep reminding myself it was all true. In his quest to bring Yemeni coffee back to the world Mokhtar Alkhanshali has positively affected the lives of thousands of Yemeni farmers, Yemeni workers preparing the coffee for export, and his own family. His story is inspiring, exciting, at times unbelievable, and full of heart. This is a great book that likely flew under your radar, do not miss it.