Book recounts quest to revive coffee trade in Yemen

January 29, 2018
This image released by Alfred A. Knopf shows "The Monk of Mokha," by Dave Eggers. ( Alfred A. Knopf via AP)

“The Monk of Mokha” (Alfred A. Knopf), by Dave Eggers

As legend has it, coffee was born in Yemen, when a Sufi brewed the beverage to fuel his late-night devotions. Roughly 700 years later, a Yemeni-American set out to revive the country’s languished and forgotten role in the world’s coffee trade.

Master storyteller Dave Eggers spins the story of this quest, which proves astonishing even aside from the half-dozen near-death experiences, in his latest nonfiction book, “The Monk of Mokha.” Readers follow Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s journey from his childhood in San Francisco’s hardscrabble Tenderloin district to the verdant mountains of Yemen to the testing room for those aspiring to be expert coffee graders. Interspersed along the way are treatises on the colorful history of coffee and the extensive process involved in producing that steaming cup of joe, as well as a refreshing, insider’s perspective on Yemen, a country more often associated in Americans’ minds with drones and al-Qaida.

If Alkhanshali’s mission sounds ambitious, it becomes even more so with Yemen’s instability following the Arab Spring and the rise of Houthi rebels. Alkhanshali uses his gift of gab to talk himself out of the many sticky situations in which he finds himself in Yemen, drawing on his hated year at a religious school to cite verses from the Quran extolling mercy and hospitality, thus persuading his jailers to let him go, as well as coaching from his former boss at a California Honda dealership (“Whoever controls the conversation controls the deal”), which propels him to tell masked men armed with AK-47s that he’ll need his laptop back by the morning. “Stranger still,” Eggers writes, “the (leader) agreed.”

Some of these incidents, and perhaps the sheer number of them, border on the fantastical, and a reader can’t help wonder if it all happened as described. Still, they’re side stories to the indisputably remarkable and true tale of how Yemeni coffee got its second act on the world stage.

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