Note: I wrote this blog post before Christmas 2020 and never got around to publishing it at the time.
Prior to reading The Monk of Mokha, I knew that Yemen exported some coffee, but it was one of the smaller players on the coffee market. Ironic considering how the first coffee cultivation started in Yemen, a fact I learned in The Monk of Mokha. This book opened my eyes to what it is like to source coffee in Yemen, which was portrayed as one of the most volatile countries in the world. A story of war, uncertainty, and coffee, I emerged after reading this book with a stark reminder that coffee importing and exporting is not just something to mention in coffee’s journey from farm to cup. It is a whole field unto itself.
The Monk of Mokha, written by Dave Eggers, follows the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali. Mokhtar grew up in the United States but never had very much. He lived in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, an area not exactly known for its wealth. Mokhtar lived near pornography stores; seeing sights no young child should have to see. He liked to cause trouble, both in school and out of school. And it seemed like his life was heading in no direction. Mokhtar worked his way up to a “good job” at an auto sales lot only to quit because he saw his manager exploiting an older customer.
Mokhtar ended up as a doorman at a fancy apartment block. Across the street from that apartment block was a statue depicting a monk from Yemen holding a cup of coffee. Coffee, in Yemen? Mokhtar had no idea of its history. Some exploration led him down a path that would eventually take up his entire life: a journey toward becoming a coffee exporter.
Mokhtar, coming from a background with very little, worked hard to get to where he wanted to be. He networked and eventually found Willem Boot, the owner of Boot Coffee, who was able to provide him with guidance. Mokhtar studied to become a Q grader, failing his first time and earning the prestigious credential after his second test. But the test seemed to be one of the easier challenges Mokhtar had to face. He wanted to export coffee from Yemen, a country whose coffee infrastructure was decapitated. There were not dozens of coffee mills; there were two. It took hours to get to farms on roads that were broken.
The roads were the least of Mokhtar’s worries. Although Yemen was somewhat unstable as he started to visit farms in the country, the situation only got worse. Groups from many different sides were fighting. This did not affect Mokhtar’s work on the farms, as those farms were often far away from the conflict. The issues with conflict came later. When Mokhtar was travelling, his main issue was his health. He got sick very often, but he kept going. He had lost a lot of weight, suspecting that at one point he had a tapeworm.
Mokhtar managed to get some samples back to the U.S. Because there was no real Yemeni speciality coffee market, the channels through which he worked were informal. He carried beans around in his suitcases. He flew them home to the U.S. with him. He was lucky that customs officials let him into the U.S. with an agricultural product that could have contained any number of compounds. Most of the coffee he arrived with was DOA, “dead on arrival.” It was useless. Three samples earned cupping scores in the ’90s and Mokhtar knew he was onto something.
The latter half of the book followed Mokhtar as he tries to get coffee from Yemen to the U.S., not an easy task given the lack of infrastructure. He had to get coffee to a processing plant when there were only two processing plants, none of which he had any stake in. He had to find a way to export the coffee. I was enthralled by his enthusiasm. Through every step of the way, Mokhtar kept his coffee close to his heart. He wanted to show the world that Yemen, who barely had a coffee industry at the time, was still capable of producing world-class beans. He met farmers that he would keep in mind. He wanted to make sure that they got the information they needed to process crops well. He wanted to show them what speciality coffee meant to coffee prices.
Mokhtar, as you can imagine, faced immense challenges along the way. As conflict in the country got worse, he found himself stuck. The airport from which he planned to fly was destroyed and he had to make his own way around the country. He ended up in a prison cell. He was sure, many times, that he was going to die. But he kept going. He knew how to talk to people and openly shared his interest in Yemeni coffee and what he thought it could be. Travelling through the country during an active war, he somehow managed to escape with the promised coffee.
This is as much a story about coffee in Yemen as it is about Mokhtar. He rose up from knowing very little about what he wanted to do and managed to find people who could help him get started in Yemeni coffee. Then he done the heavy lifting. He visited all the regions in Yemen and took photos, which he later showed to many people. He developed real relationships with farmers. He even told them they were being exploited by loan sharks (accidentally, in front of a loan shark!).
I knew that Yemen was a troubled area but that was the extent to which I was familiar with the country. I learned that the fighters were principled; Mokhtar managed to pass through roadblocks and checkpoints. I knew there were issues but there also seems to be an amazing countryside to be seen. People in the villages are hospitable; one village had a log book with signatures of everyone who had been to the village. I developed an appreciation for Yemen as a coffee growing country. I am still somewhat in awe that Mokhtar managed to get out, never mind that he was able to import coffee. Mokhtar worked with Blue Bottle, where he initially spent a lot of time while learning about coffee, to sell his coffee.
The Monk of Mokha is a thrilling tale of conflict and building the infrastructure necessary to create a speciality coffee industry. I’d recommend this book for any coffee lover, whether or not you have ever had a coffee from Yemen or have a specific interest in the region. This book had me yearning for more every time I put it down. Mokhtar is principled, driven by his love for coffee. He tells a story that makes me rethink exactly what goes into coffee processing and importing.
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