How one man’s plunge into the Arab coffee trade nearly killed him

by David Hill / 14 April, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Dave Eggers Monk

Mokhtar. Photo/Port of Mokha

If Dave Eggers' The Monk of Mokha was fiction, the publisher would ask for it to be toned down.

Californian writer Dave Eggers does great titles: You Shall Know Our Velocity! And (deep breath) Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

You may know 2013’s The Circle. This trumpeted, filmed, formulaic dystopian indulgence was Eggers at his worst. More often, he’s a subversive supporter of individuals punching back at The Great World’s less-great efforts.

So it is here. We first see our protagonist Mokhtar as a doorman in a swanky San Francisco apartment complex, helping the pampered carry their shopping. He’s the son of Yemeni immigrants, street-sharp, feckless and reckless, edging towards crime.

Then he finds a mission. He’s going to restore Yemeni coffee to its rightful pre-eminence in the world. He’ll go there and face local warlords and Saudi bombs while he’s doing it.

Oh, and it’s all true. There really is a Mokhtar. He’s Yemeni, Muslim, American. He was a doorman, and he does start a business selling coffee sourced in his parents’ country, where a cafe owner wears a string of grenades around his neck to show commercial determination.

So this is creative non-fiction. How creative I can’t say. What I can say is that it typifies Eggers’ sense of obligation to the planet: he donates much of his earnings from royalties to causes and many of his narratives are insistently positive.

Early on, Mokhtar is sent to his grandfather’s castle back home. He’s impressed, but he returns to his usual “high-bullshit mode”. Then he sees a statue, near his workplace, of a Yemeni man drinking coffee. Next thing, he’s learning coffee-plant care, how to pick bad beans, how to do good roasting. He heads multiple times to the Near East, persuading farmers to change from narcotics to caffeine; raising finance; improving his Arabic.

Civil war tears Yemen open. He’s held hostage in Aden by chilling vigilantes (“I killed two of you earlier today”). He shudders with malaria and “maniacal” diarrhoea. His fiancée’s mum helps him get his Colt .45 back. If this were fiction, the publisher would ask for it to be toned down.

In the US, where Trump’s travel ban lurches chaotically along, he is met with xenophobia, suspicion, searches and official obtuseness. He perseveres, with many 4am phone calls, and finally the first shipment of Yemeni coffee beans lands in San Francisco. Mokhtar and Eggers are there to meet it. A grand ending.

Two reservations. I won’t say that the prodigiously engaging protagonist comes across as too good to be credible. But Eggers’ own words for him – “exquisitely and bravely … inherent rightness … courage unfettered and unyielding” – carry a whiff of absolutism.

There’s another whiff as well. Cosiness. Patronage, almost. The author’s intentions are flawless; his eagerness and empathy undeniable. Yet … is the American Dream actually an entrepreneur selling $15 cups of coffee to the liberal affluent?

THE MONK OF MOKHA, by Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton, $38)

This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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