Eggers Considers Coffee, Yemen, and the American Dream


Courtesy Knopf

With a scintillating plot and intense action involving immigrants, international trade, terrorism, Yemeni history, and Oakland’s Blue Bottle Coffee, Dave Eggers’ new nonfiction book, The Monk of Mokha, screams cinema. It’s easy to imagine a film adaptation, especially if the right Arabic actor is cast as Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the story’s charming, charismatic, real life protagonist.

Seeking to become a coffee importer, the Yemeni-American who grew up largely in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district exudes entrepreneurial zest. A zigzag path has him stepping from typically troubled teen to employment as a doorman in a high-end residential building to coffee industry apprenticeship to a world of intrigue in his family’s native land, war-ravaged Yemen.

Woven within fascinating historical elements and a climactic escape scene in which Alkhanshali—and 18,000 kilograms (roughly 39,683 pounds) of coffee beans—are taken hostage, this is a love story about coffee culture, a Muslim man’s ancestral homeland, and the American dream in the 21st century.

Eggers writes with customary flair: displaying tricks of the trade with well-paced accounts that in one surreal example build to Alkhanshali waiting shoeless on a beach, certain his death is eminent, thrown into jail with stinky, dangerously disturbed prisoners, then almost in an instant, meeting and being momentarily rescued by a gentle man he recalls for his tank top and a comment that the man “liked his face.”

Later, as Alkhanshali begins his eventual escape, Eggers frames the moment in concise, two-sentence drama: Alkhanshali’s first-ever watercraft experience is on “a tiny skiff leaving Yemen in the middle of a civil war.” The coffee he carries is “the first coffee to leave the port of Mokha in eighty years.”

Remarkably, it’s impossible to know which a reader cares about more: Alkhanshali’s safety or that of his precious cargo. The tapestry of Yemen and its indigenous people, the industriousness of American immigrants, the labor and exploitation involved in producing coffee as a commodity combine in an evocative, ironic ending. Alkhanshali and Eggers watch from a far-off balcony the MSC Luciana container ship arrive in San Francisco Bay ahead of a scheduled group celebration. It’s an uplifting, inspiring true story of individual valor and community effort told by a skilled storyteller. Don’t wait to see it on the silver screen.

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers (Knopf, January 2018, 352 pp., $28.95)