The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers, author; Dion Graham, narrator

The Monk of Mokha I am an honest to goodness coffee lover, so I found it interesting to learn of its origin, history of development, types of beans, types of flavors, methods of growing, ripening stages, roasting and serving suggestions, but some coffee I would not venture to try after the description given, like kopi luwak. The civet, an animal, has an instinct for picking the best beans, and then they are separated from the civet feces and roasted and brewed! Not my cup of tea, pardon the pun!
Dave Eggers reviews the life of Mokhtar Alkhanshali from his rebellious teens in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco, to his successful career as a coffee exporter in the present day. During that time he was an activist and was the youngest member of a Yemeni American delegation invited to address the State House and the White House. He overcame illness, danger, and all other obstacles that were placed before him. Mohktar had a dream. He wanted to raise and improve the image of Yemen from a country of terrorists to a country that produced more than qat, a country that was a major exporter of the finest coffee in the world. He wanted to restore Yemen to greatness. This was no easy feat in a country overridden by competing tribes, rebels, terrorists and interference from governments within and without. Attacks occurred at random and capture and arrest were serendipitous. Coincidence, good fortune, luck and/or happenstance determined someone’s success or failure, life or death, safety or danger, at times. Knowing someone with influence was often more important than the knowledge of his business effort.
Born in America, Mokhtar experienced the racism that followed 9/11. He also experienced the profiling and arrest in Arab countries as well. Feared in America as a Muslim and an Arab, feared in Yemen as a member of a rebel tribe or the government, he was at risk often, but he faced the challenges because he was driven to help the country of his heritage, although not his birth, and to be a success and to make his parents proud in America.
Today, his company called Port of Mokha is a reality, but it began as a dream in 2013. He was sent to live with his grandfather in Yemen, when he was a recalcitrant teenager, and he became enamored with the coffee growing industry. He traveled throughout Yemen, which was often very dangerous, and he visited all of the coffee farms. He learned how the beans were cultivated and roasted. He learned which were the best beans, or cherries. He raised the wages of the employees, made working conditions far better and encouraged excellence in his work force.
During this time, he was captured by terrorists, arrested by the government, caught in gun battles and even rescued shoeless while fearing his imminent death. Overcoming all odds, now, he exports only the finest beans to many countries. The price of a cup of his coffee, when first sold at Blue Bottle in 2017, was $16/cup. Although it came with a cardamom cookie, it was still far too pricey for most people. Still, the price has now come down some, I read, but I have not had the pleasure of tasting it.
The story is really interesting. I did not realize that coffee was born in Ethiopia because goats were over excited! I was happy, though, that the boy who was worth less than a donkey made good, at last, overcoming the odds against him. His perseverance and even bravery were outstanding. However, I did find some of the subtle remarks in the book, perhaps the interpretation of the author, to be a bit anti-American. Some comments seemed to disrespect the current President Trump, and although some comments were unfavorable about President Obama’s policies, they were not disrespectful in the same way.
Although it was in Arab countries that Mokhtar’s life was in the most danger, and where he was often actually threatened, he was far more forgiving of those “enemies” and seemed to express more of an outrage about the way his own country, America, treated him at times, especially during travel. Yet his own country has allowed him to accomplish the American dream, in the end, with the cooperation of his friends and family in Yemen. While I do believe he was justified in his anger, quite often, and in his frustration at being profiled, I found that he was not as outraged by his absolutely horrific treatment by those who feared him in Arab countries. There, it was not only his freedom that was threatened; it was his life and the lives of those traveling with him, as well. I thought it was a miracle that there were so few casualties along the way. Still, I felt he gave the Arabs a pass in his assessment of their behavior. Finally, I got the feeling that the author recognized the existence of Palestine, which does not exist, as of yet. Israel exists.
Also, I was a bit disappointed that he took an expensive apartment to satisfy his ego, his materialism, forgoing his altruism which was the highlight of the book as he tried always to improve the lives of the Yemenis he encountered and worked with, in his coffee endeavors. I thought his first effort would have been to better the lives of his family, his friends who had sacrificed so much. I thought he would move his parents and siblings into more comfortable accommodations with him, so not only did he no longer have to sleep on a mattress on the floor, but they would also have space and air around them. They seemed so accommodating to his needs and appreciative of anything they and he had accomplished.
The picture of Arab life in Yemen was peaceful and ordinary sometimes, as well as violent and frightening at others. No one knew when a bomb would drop, a gun would fire, a band of enemies would take them away. Some places seemed so gentle and mild-mannered while some seemed overwhelmed by upheaval and hostility.
The book clearly defined the plight of the immigrant who had no place to run to, and no country willing to take them. Often, American immigrants visiting Yemen or doing business there were harassed. Then in America, they faced obstacles as well. Too often there was no place to turn for help. In America, they were feared as Arabs, and in Yemen they were feared as Americans. They were in a no win situation, at times.
Either the author or Mokhtar glossed over the violence, lawlessness and tribalism that caused many of his problems, often making them seem like laughing matters, while ignoring the reality of the rules that needed to be followed to move goods in and out of Yemen and America, sometimes taking greater offense at the way those problem were handled as if then he was more of a target than in Yemen. Yet it was in Yemen that he needed bodyguards and weapons to protect himself. A point was made to point out the fact that the Houthis seemed less violent and more polite than the government soldiers. Both often questioned him and his traveling companions.
In the end, this man who defied the odds and became successful, did reach out and does help others, however. I wondered just how much he has improved the lives of the Yemeni on the coffee farms since there is still so much chaos in Yemen. I wonder how long his dream can be sustained.

About omasvoice

Who am I? I am you. I am everyone out there who loves to read and discuss and voice an opinion!
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Books for Adults, Non-Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

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