Dave Eggers first made his splash as a memoirist in 2000 with “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” But his special strength, over the past dozen years, has been taking dramatic stories of American immigrants — a Somalian “Lost Boy” struggling in Atlanta in “What Is the What,” a Syrian-American family caught in the chaos of Hurricane Katrina (and authoritarian-style law enforcement) in “Zeitoun” — and putting his own writing chops in service of their voices.
The books are products of lengthy exchanges between Eggers and his subjects. Eggers records and transcribes hours of interviews with them, then follows that up with confirmation of facts where possible. Eggers and his publisher haven’t always known how to classify these projects: “What Is the What” was labeled a novel, while “Zeitoun” was billed as nonfiction. But however they’re identified, they work brilliantly as narratives that reveal worlds that otherwise would be well off the radar of most readers.
In “The Monk of Mokha,” Eggers does it again. It’s the tale of a young Yemeni-American, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who grew up in San Francisco’s seedy Tenderloin district with his immigrant parents. Then, in his early 20s, he became obsessed with reviving the coffee trade in his ancestral homeland just as it was sliding into civil war. While “The Monk of Mokha” reads like an outlandish piece of fiction, it’s actually a fact-based saga “ about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat,” Eggers writes. And, of course, it’s coffee-obsessed
Mokhtar is half workaholic and half con artist. He’s both streetwise and scatterbrained. (In the opening chapter he manages to lose a satchel containing $3,000 in charity donations.) He’s also expert at eliciting help — especially of the financial variety — from friends and family as he strives to fulfill his preposterous ambitions. His motto would appear to be: “Fake it till you make it.” Gunpoint confrontations, Saudi air raids, historical lore about coffee cultivation, and the realpolitik of Yemeni tribal power-plays all figure in the book.
Coming of age in the Tenderloin (“the city’s go-zone for crack, meth, prostitution, petty crime and public defecation”) was both an advantage and disadvantage to Mokhtar. Housed in cramped quarters with porn arcades and homeless panhandlers as neighbors, he and his family were part of a tight-knit Yemeni community. But it didn’t take long for Mokhtar — “a fast learner, a fast talker, a corner-cutter” — to discover he lived just blocks away from “an entirely different world.”
In his teens, he found work at Banana Republic, Macy’s, a Honda dealership, and as a “Lobby Ambassador” (i.e., doorman) at a luxury apartment building. It’s while serving as a doorman that he stumbles onto Yemen’s coffee connection, which he eagerly shares with his parents.
His mother’s bemused reaction? “We’ve had coffee in our family for hundreds of years,’’ she says. “Don’t you remember your grandfather’s house in Ibb? He had coffee trees in his yard. He’s still got them.”
With a local connection to work with, Mokhtar makes his move. His plan is to introduce “a different idea of Yemen to the world, a Yemen apart from drones and al-Qaeda.” Unfortunately, his timing stinks. The year is 2014. Houthi rebels are taking over the country. Roadblocks are everywhere. Even when Mokhtar can make it to far-flung coffee-cultivation regions in the Yemeni mountains, his field expertise is — to put it kindly — somewhat lacking. He doesn’t make a good impression when he mistakes an olive tree for a coffee plant. (“I know that,” he improvises. “But the vegetation around the coffee plants affects their health.”) It helps that he has a qualified agronomist traveling with him who can step in and offer actual growing tips.
Against all odds, Mokhtar wins the farmers over with promises that he can get them better prices for their harvests by connecting them with high-end specialty-coffee outlets. There’s just the little matter of getting the coffee to port with Yemen exploding all around them.
“The Monk of Mokha” (the title refers to the 15th-century “Sufi holy man” credited with first brewing coffee as we know it in the Red Sea port of Mokha) resembles a political thriller with an insanely optimistic Horatio Alger type skedaddling through it.
Eggers has Mokhtar’s number.
“I don’t mean to understate the danger that Mokhtar was in,” he notes in the book’s prologue, “but feel it’s important to reflect the outlook of a man who is uniquely difficult to rattle.”
The odds of Mokhtar’s scheme succeeding are ludicrously long. But high spirits, it seems, can sometimes prevail even in the most dire geopolitical mayhem.
THE MONK OF MOKHA
By Dave Eggers
Knopf, 327 pp., $28.95
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Novelist Michael Upchurch (“Passive Intruder”) is the former Seattle Times book critic.