The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Knopf, 2018; 327 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
A brief tutorial on coffee production and life in Yemen, told in the journalistic and yet lyrical style that Dave Eggers is known for in his non-fiction is the literary creation that is The Monk of Mokha. Eggers takes us into the world of Mokhtar, a young man of Yemeni ancestry raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood and unclear on his career path in the world when a friend remarks on the statue outside of the building where he works as a doorman, a statue of an icon in the world of coffee. Mokhtar discovers in his research of the statue that his cultural home is the origin of coffee cultivation and production, and from Yemen, over centuries, coffee was introduced to other climates around the world.
When Mokhtar researches modern-day coffee cultivation and production in Yemen, he is disappointed to discover the Yemeni coffee processing is nearly non-existent and haphazard. Knowing nothing of coffee production and distribution, Mokhtar creates a SWOT chart to help him with the visualization of making Yemen a contender in coffee once again:
Under “Strengths” he wrote:
-Highest amount of coffee genetic diversity
Under “Weaknesses” he wrote:
-Lack of data
-Lots of defects
For “Opportunities” he wrote:
-No one else focused on specialty coffee in Yemen
-Finding and reviving ancient varietals
For “Threats” he wrote:
-Pirates in Red Sea
Mokhtar starts on an adventure of discovering how to work in the coffee world, how to navigate the strife in the Middle East, and how to work with the mysterious Andrew Nicholson to realize his dream of making Yemeni the leader in world craft coffee beans. He learns from nearly complete ignorance how to cup coffee, roast beans, and assess coffee quality from Bay Area branches of Blue Bottle Coffee and Dutch roaster Boot Coffee; once he learns how to assess beans and what quality standards are necessary to sell coffee on the world market, he travels to Yemen to apply his knowledge. There he faces health issues while his body acclimates to Yemeni climate, food, and water; he faces military threats from both sides of a religious civil war and power vacuum (not to mention Saudi air strikes); and he faces convincing investors of his ability to supply beans through logistical hurdles that come with war and convincing farmers that his approach to harvesting and selling their beans will benefit them more than the loan sharks they have been working with for years. Eggers stands outside of this tale for most of the narrative, introducing his role at the beginning and then appearing again when Mokhtar is atop of the building where he used to be a doorman, waiting for the first shipment of Yemeni coffee arrive through the Golden Gate via container ship to be off-loaded at the Port of Oakland. This detachment puts most of the narrative focus on Mokhtar, creating the illusion that the reader can nearly forget that Eggers is writing the book and that Mokhtar has instead sat down with the reader over a cup of coffee and is telling his fantastic tale. It is a tale grown even more amazing by the current political climate and immigration/ trade challenges, and Eggers conveys those challenges in the undercurrent of the book.