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NON-FICTION: FOR THE LOVE OF MOCHA

February 03, 2019

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Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers works on several levels: primarily, it is the rousing story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a second-generation Yemeni in the United States who attempts to revive his country’s lost heritage. Second, it is a fascinating introduction to the world of coffee, arguably the planet’s favourite beverage and its second most valuable commodity, powering a global industry worth over $100 billion. Third, it is an intimate window into Yemeni culture and the ongoing crisis caused by the war. It is an easy and captivating read, wholesome, feel-good entertainment. And the best thing about it is that it is a real-life story.

Alkhanshali is in his mid-20s, living in San Francisco and struggling to figure out a direction in life. He wrestles with plans for college, works as a doorman at a fancy high-rise apartment complex and has a strong-willed Palestinian Christian girlfriend who believes in him. The stars suddenly align for him one day when he encounters a 20-foot-tall statue in his neighbourhood of a Yemeni figure drinking coffee. The statue belongs to a local coffee import business and their office has a big wall covered with photographs chronicling the history of coffee. Alkhanshali is entranced by this strange new world and walks home in a daze. There, his parents laugh and tell him, “Don’t you know Yemenis were the first to export coffee? Yemenis basically invented coffee. You didn’t know this?”

After a feverish few weeks of internet research, Alkhanshali finally discovers his life’s calling: to “reinvent coffee from Yemen.”

A real-life tale about reinventing coffee works as a window into Yemeni culture and the crisis that it’s caught in because of an ongoing war

The book goes into glorious detail into the arcane world of coffee, the intricacies of the farming and roasting processes, the evolution of the industry over the years and the recent trend in the West of artisanal varieties. The origin of coffee itself is a riveting read.

This particular story begins in Ethiopia centuries ago where, late one night, a shepherd notices a strange energy in his flock — his goats are supposed to be asleep, but instead, they are prancing and jumping as if possessed. The shepherd discovers that this is because of the fruit they have eaten from bushes nearby and when he tries some of it himself, he discovers himself strangely reinvigorated.

This is the coffee fruit, red and cherry-like, which grows on trees that bloom only once a year. Inside this fruit are the seed-like beans, green and yellow and hard. The Ethiopians would chew and make weak tea from them, but it was in Mokha, a port city in Yemen, in the 14th century, that a certain Ali ibn Omar first brewed the bean into qahwa. Ibn Omar was a Sufi of the Shadhiliya order; this new drink with its energising effect proved popular in Sufi gatherings and spread rapidly across the Muslim world. In fact, the Arabs built the first coffeehouses (qahveh khaneh), which were lively, riotous places. The drink proved so popular and became such a valuable commodity that export was criminalised.

The Europeans initially did not take to the strange new concoction; the taste was too bitter. So an enterprising Viennese added cream and sugar and the crowds started showing up. As other people took it up, qahwa mutated to kahve in Turkish, koffie in Dutch and, soon enough, we had coffee.

Eggers’s book reads very much like one of those ubiquitous ‘lost episodes’ from Islamic history and when Alkhanshali embarks on his quest and takes on a mentor to teach him all about coffee, he realises the all-too-familiar irony: him, a Yemeni, of the very nation that invented coffee, having to learn basic skills in the art of coffee from Willem, a Dutchman, one of the appropriators.

After training himself and raising finances, Alkhanshali heads off to Yemen to make his mark, landing right in the middle of the ongoing war where he is soon negotiating with militias and dodging bombs. The book doesn’t deal directly with the politics of the conflict, but one gets a good sense of the chaos and the disruption. Eggers’s narrative has a brisk pace and the characters are not complicated; they are recognisable and grounded in the real world. As such, it is the kind of story that would make a great television series.

Readers can expect to come away with several opinions from this book. For one, they will never look at coffee the same way again. Second, they will be frustrated by the fact that there is no culture for specialist coffee in Pakistan, no place to indulge their newfound knowledge. Most importantly, readers will likely recognise the problems that Alkhanshali wrestles with in reforming the coffee supply chain in Yemen — they are the same problems we face here in Pakistan: the corruption, the mafias, the structural issues, the apathetic bureaucracies, the marginalised role of women. But what makes it all worthwhile is the immense potential, not just in terms of talent and energy, but also of what may be achieved, the possibility of the genuine transformation of entire communities.

But there may also be some disappointments for the reader. For one, the story seems too clean. A few reviewers have actually complained that the story is perhaps a bit too simple, and that Eggers’s migrant-themed books have deteriorated lately to little more than a rehashing of the American Dream, a sort of repackaging of the old rags-to-riches story to reassure the liberal mindset in these dark times.

But whereas the less fussy reader can shrug off this critique, other, far more worrisome concerns have surfaced. In real life news, Alkhanshali, who is now a mini-celebrity, was sued recently by a company called Mocha Mill with charges including fraud, conspiracy, money laundering, extortion and embezzlement. In their court submissions, Mocha Mill advance an alternative version to Alkhanshali’s story. Mocha Mill claim that they were Alkhanshali’s original partners in this whole enterprise and invested heavily in him to revive the fortunes of Yemeni coffee. Alkhanshali subsequently made off with their contacts and business linkages, defrauding them out of their rightful earnings and, once his own star was ascendant, together with Eggers wrote them out of history. Mocha Mill are seeking compensation and a restructuring of Alkhanshali’s business.

It’s too early to tell how this particular drama will play out, but there may be something to it (one of the complainants happens to be Alkhanshali’s own uncle). If the charges stick, if Alkhanshali turns out to be another Greg Mortenson (he of Three Cups of Tea), then it would be a shame because in these trying times, we can certainly use more genuinely inspiring and uplifting stories.

The reviewer is an assistant professor at the NUST School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

The Monk of Mokha
By Dave Eggers
Knopf, US
ISBN: 978-1101947319
352pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 3rd, 2019