Dave Eggers has a questionable legacy to overcome in his nonfiction. After a career as a literary journalist, he broke onto the book scene with a memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. He followed up with more nonfiction and a string of literary novels. His fiction has done well, with two being made into absolutely terrible movies, A Hologram for the King, and The Circle. With these, Eggers established himself as a reigning public intellectual of the American center-left.
Then in 2009, Eggers produced nonfiction book Zeitoun, a portrait of New Orleans Arab-American landlord and businessman Abdulrahman Zeitoun. As Eggers tells it, during the Hurricane Katrina aftermath Zeitoun paddled about in a canoe rescuing stranded people and animals—but in the process was picked up and detained for several days by National Guard and New Orleans police patrol on suspicion of being a terrorist.
When the book came out Eggers was lionized for his depiction of Muslim-American family life (despite the fact that American literature has for generations had depictions of Muslim family life by actual Muslim authors, some of them quite good), and his courage in revealing the racism of the Louisiana National Guard and New Orleans police force.
It turned out, however, that in addition to perhaps being a misunderstood Islamic American hero, Zeitoun might also be a bit of a serial wife abuser. Although Zeitoun was acquitted in 2013 on charges of trying to beat his wife to death with a tire iron and later soliciting a fellow inmate to murder her for $20,000, he was subsequently in and out of New Orleans jails and courts for repeatedly violating protective orders prohibiting contact with his wife, and finally convicted on a felony stalking charge in 2016.
Eggers can’t be faulted for any of Zeitoun’s later antics, of course, but it really does seem he painted too rosy a picture of the fellow in his book. Perhaps that misjudgment had part of its origin in Eggers’s assumption of Zeitoun’s worthiness and of the innate racism filling everyone around him.
So a reader might naturally be cautious when taking up Eggers’s latest nonfiction work, The Monk of Mokha, another Horatio Alger tale of an Islamic American facing down prejudice and achieving a measure of success. This one takes place in San Francisco and Yemen.
When he is not engaged in gnostic lefty political pronouncements, Eggers tells a good story. The problem is, time and again, Eggers just can’t keep himself from delivering paragraphs like:
This is 2015, fourteen years after 9/11, and seven years into the administration of President Barack Obama. As a nation we had progressed from the high paranoia of the Bush years; the active harassment of Muslim Americans had eased somewhat, but any crime perpetrated by any Muslim American fanned the flames of Islamophobia for another few months.
Of course, this is a cry of faith, not a political position. It isn’t hard to argue that perhaps a more thoughtful position on the Bush era and America might be warranted, even for a lefty like Eggers.
To top off the paeans to progressivism, the back matter of the book contains—a quiz! Eggers provides very serious-minded discussion questions and reading suggestions relating the book to race issues and Muslim identity in America. No doubt readers are expected to complete their answers while sipping a cup of Ethiopian Guji Hambela Natural at the Palo Alto Blue Bottle.
It all makes one wonder whether to take at face value the rest of the tale, which is quite upbeat and entertaining. It’s the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an American of Yemeni ancestry now in his 30s, and his quest to bring fine Yemeni coffee to the coffee lovers of San Francisco’s pour-over cafés, where prices can run well over $10 a cup.
Mokhtar grew up in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, which Eggers calls “a valley of desperation in a city of towering wealth,” where his father was a security guard and later a bus driver. He is a third-generation Yemeni-American, a member of a sprawling family that is part of a large Yemeni clan. After spending his eighth-grade year in Ibb, Yemen, Mokhtar returned to America fluent in Arabic, with an upper-class, international accent that later serves him well in some very dicey situations.
As Eggers describes him, Mokhtar is a boy filled with big dreams, but an indifferent student. Nevertheless, with the help of neighborhood tutoring his parents force him to go to, he graduates high school and takes a couple of courses in a community college before dropping out. After a stint as a department store shoe salesman and then a car salesman, Mokhtar develops a winning persona that Eggers calls “Rupert,” after the animated bear, and begins to make a material success of himself. The name “Rupert” is also a swipe at assumed white attitudes toward Arabic Americans—that is, white people who want to see a clean-cut brown boy in a polo shirt and khakis who is willing to strike a happy, servile demeanor.
Not surprisingly, Mokhtar believes there must be more to life. He quits his job, depends on temp work and his parents’ goodwill, and for several years spends “most of his free time at UC Berkeley, helping organize students around causes crucial to Arab and Muslim Americans.” Eggers later lists those “causes crucial to Arab and Muslim Americans” as outrage about Palestine (presumably involving indignation at Israel’s existence) and indignation at the immigration policies of the U.S. State Department.
Then one day, across from a highrise apartment building where Mokhtar has taken a job as the doorman, he sees a statue he hadn’t noticed before. It depicts a man in mid-stride drinking a cup of coffee. The man wears a traditional tunic that seems to be a mishmash of the Ethiopian and Yemeni thobe.
It turns out the statue represents the old Hills Brothers Coffee Company logo. In fact, the guy depicted may be Sufi holy man Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili of the Yemeni city of Mokha, credited with being the first man ever to brew a real cup of coffee. Al-Shadhili became known in history as the Monk of Mokha.
Mokhtar begins to consider: Coffee originated in Yemen, but present-day Yemeni coffee was hard-to-come-by and second-rate. Why should this be? In addition to overcoming the challenges of Yemen’s terrible political state, one who wished to find and brew quality Yemeni coffee must also deal with the fact that most farmers in Yemen had converted to a more lucrative crop, qat, which is chewed like tobacco throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
A plan forms in Mokhtar’s mind. He will use his ties to Yemen and fluent Arabic to upgrade Yemeni coffee exports and bring it to the artisanal coffee shops of San Francisco. He will become the new Monk of Mokha!
Mokhtar knows very little about coffee. He doesn’t drink it. He knows even less about how to create a business plan. But he has two things going for him. One is enthusiasm, which before had been expressed in the furor of Arab-Muslim activism.
Mokhtar’s other, far more crucial asset, which he only slowly understands and makes use of, is his network of family connections and his childhood friendship with people who have gone on to become deeply engaged in the entrepreneurial community of San Francisco. Mokhtar is, at heart, a trader in the ancient tradition with the instincts of a businessman.
So Mokhtar sets out on his quest. It’s a fairly compelling tale, which Eggers unfortunately intersperses with tedious chapters of exposition on coffee history, all skewed with the vibe of anti-colonialist theory. It would seem that instead of creating a thriving market in coffee that lifted the people of Yemen from grinding Medieval levels of poverty, Renaissance and Enlightenment Europeans actually destroyed a Rousseauvian pastoral paradise by purchasing the area’s exports, then robbed Yemen of exclusive control of its crop by nefariously picking up a few seeds and planting coffee elsewhere—and as result destroyed the lives of even more happy shepherds and scratch farmers in those locales.
Whether the incontrovertible fact that coffee fueled the Enlightenment, which led to democracy, the enforcement of the rights of man, science, effective medicine, and the modern paperback novel, to name a few benefits, was worth the astounding outpouring of white man’s perfidy and mistreatment Eggers attempts to chronicle, is a question the reader must be left to ponder while sipping his or her favorite version of a cup of joe.
Riding to the Rescue
Despite his initial shortcomings in experience, Mokhtar travels back to Yemen where, with the help of his family and tribal connections, he tours around meeting coffee growers and collecting samples. Back in the United States, he finds a strong mentor in coffee expert Willem Boot, who helps him get his “Q Rating,” the coffee version of being a qualified wine sommelier, and introduces him to the coffee import business. Some, a very little, of the coffee Mokhtar has brought back turns out to be excellent stuff.
Mokhtar returns yet again to Yemen and works on his export scheme. This time, his developing expertise and the wisdom of experience pay dividends. He travels extensively (armed with a Colt .45 and accompanied by a bodyguard-driver supplied by his family) through the country, makes contacts with farmers and local co-ops, and creates his own coffee sorting house in Sana’a with the partnership of expatriate coffee exporter Andrew Nicholson, originally from Louisiana.
Here we encounter Eggers’s storytelling weakness. He is good at getting us interested in a character, but not so good at evoking setting. Mokhtar Alkhanshali visited every corner of Yemen in real life, documenting much of it with great photos of the people and places he visited. Eggers tells us about the photos, and states that they are beautiful and the country varied, but we come away with no sense of the place. Eggers’s descriptions of San Francisco are similarly anemic, consisting mostly of expository lumps of history.
In any case, soon Mokhtar has enough coffee to fill a shipping container and more. Then unforeseen disaster strikes. A reader perhaps could not be blamed for imagining that the disaster might have been foreseen, just a little. Maybe, instead of American racism and its provocative support of Israel, something else might have been responsible for the lack of fine quality coffee from Yemen in San Francisco’s pour-over cafés.
It could be that the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor and the resulting murder of seventeen U.S. sailors by al-Qaeda extremists; the murder of eight Spanish tourists near Marib by bombers in 2007; the car bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a in 2009; the smuggling of two bombs on Yemen-to-Chicago-bound cargo planes in 2010; the attempted suicide bombing of Detroit-bound Northwest flight 253 on Christmas 2010 by a Nigerian Islamic extremist sent by Al Qaeda commanders in Yemen; the establishment of a safe haven for American-born Al Qaeda stooge Anwar al-Awlaki (until he was finally taken out by a U.S. drone attack in 2011 after an accommodation agreement with the shaky government); the coup in 2015 by Houthi Shi’ite militants with funding from Iranian intelligence operatives; the attempt by the Houthi government to shut down the shipping lane from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and to engage in piracy; the 2016 ISIS slaughter in Aden of 16 people in an old folks’ home, including four nuns; and of course the ongoing violence in the country over the past two decades leading to the death by bombings and attacks of thousands upon thousands of Yemeni citizens—all might have something to do with the fact that Yemeni coffee had heretofore been hard to come by.
But, as Eggers presents it, these pale beside the real enemy of Yemini coffee: American prejudice and Islamophobia.
After the Houthi insurgency threat against its neighbors—and seemingly much to Mokhtar’s surprise—Saudi Arabia and a Gulf states coalition begin airstrikes against the Iranian puppet regime that’s taken over the government. The already anarchic country is thrown into even more chaos. The Obama-era State Department is incapable of evacuating or helping out American citizens wishing to leave.
Mokhtar is left with a warehouse full of coffee, but no possibility of getting the stuff America-bound. Even getting himself out becomes a problem, and he spends a couple of terrifying days traveling from Sana’a to Aden in hopes of a ship transport, which does not materialize, where he is stopped constantly by militias at checkpoints, detained at gunpoint, arrested, sprung, surrounded by a gang of AK-47-wielding hooligans in the dead of night in his hotel room, and threatened twice with death.
Through it all Mokhtar keeps talking. What he is selling, what keeps him alive, is a dream of American entrepreneurship. He shows his captors the coffee samples he carries. He tells his story, describes his vision. His high-falutin’ Arabic accent impresses them, as well. It is his ability to evoke the American dream in others that saves Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s life.
Mokhtar eventually gets back to the United States. But what about the coffee? The consortium of Yemeni-American investors he’d previously put together with the aid of an uncle is reluctant to invest money in the strife-torn country, particularly after the Saudi coalition remains intent on keeping the Iran-backed Houthis in check. Who comes riding to the rescue? Peter Thiel.
Through a friend of a friend, Mokhtar makes a connection at Founders Fund, the preeminent Silicon Valley venture capital firm. Founder’s founder is Thiel, who, as Eggers puts it “was most recently known for his appearance at the Republican National Convention, espousing his devotion to Donald J. Trump.” Somehow, after facing AK-47s and midnight jailhouse interrogations in Yemen, this does not seem an insurmountable problem to Mokhtar.
‘Can’t worry about that yet,’ Mokhtar said. Founders was full of progressives, including one of its partners—a woman Stephanie thought they should meet. Her name was Cyan Banister. They looked her up. She was a noted angel investor who had bet early on SpaceX and Uber. She was also genderqueer. ‘We can go,’ Mokhtar said. Somehow her politics, they thought, would balance out Thiel’s. Then again, Thiel was gay, too. It was all very confusing.
Eggers, true to form, fails to find a trace of irony in the situation. It really is all very confusing to him.
The Monk of Mokha is an enjoyable story with a winning main character and a relatively happy ending. It’s worth the price of a read—although after putting out for the book, the reader may have to leave the enjoyment of a $16 cup of pour-over Yemeni coffee to the Peter Thiels and Dave Eggerses of the world. Inshallah.