Coffee, Journeys & Yemen

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CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

This review, thanks to Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, has my attention on The Coffee-Flavored American Dream of a young man with about as improbable a mission as I can imagine.  Returning to the coffee fields of Costa Rica’s Tarrazu region in a few days, I also plan to cross the Central Valley to see the latest mission accomplished of another coffee dreamer, the choice of Dave Eggers for his latest book topic is much appreciated.

A few years ago I traveled with a group of friends from the southern Yemeni port city of Aden to the capital of Sanaa in the north, taking the long coastal road that twists and curves around the bulge of Yemen’s southernmost tip. After passing the Bab el Mandeb strait, the road stretches along the seashore. Under a clear bright sky, the waters of the Red Sea shimmered and the sand glowed a warm ocher, the monotony interrupted only by an occasional fisherman’s shack, a small nomadic settlement or a bleached one-room mosque. Flat-topped trees looming in the distance suggested an African landscape.

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CreditLorenzo Gritti

Ahead of us lay the port of Mokha, or Al-Mukha in Arabic, where from the 15th century onward ships set sail with precious Yemeni coffee bound for Istanbul, London, Amsterdam and eventually New York — so much coffee that the word “mocha” became synonymous with it.

Those days are gone. In Yemen today, sweet chai masala is far more prevalent than coffee, and as my friends and I drove through the dusty lanes of Mokha that afternoon, the town appeared to be little more than a cluster of mud-colored hovels and shacks built from cinder blocks and metal sheets. Mokha’s only association with coffee was the half-ruined, ancient mosque of Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili, the Sufi credited with bringing the coffee plant from Ethiopia to Yemen. Coffee seemed to have been relegated to history.

Enter Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the soft-spoken young Yemeni-American protagonist of Dave Eggers’s latest nonfiction book, “The Monk of Mokha,” who got into his head the mad idea of reviving that long-dead trade and exporting high-quality coffee arabica beans out of Yemen.

Mokhtar grew up in San Francisco’s poor and troubled Tenderloin neighborhood. His family’s apartment sat between two porn shops. He and his five siblings — they would expand to nine — slept in the only bedroom. His father and mother slept in the living room.

The Tenderloin was “the city’s go-zone for crack, meth, prostitution, petty crime and public defecation,” Eggers writes, the “illegal-activity containment zone.” But it was also one of the city’s most affordable neighborhoods, where newly arrived families from Asia and the Middle East settled to start a new life.

In his youth Mokhtar wandered the streets without clear purpose. He became accustomed to the sight of hustlers and junkies and the stench of human feces, urine and weed. In local playgrounds children as young as 13 smoked pot. Mokhtar found it hard to avoid trouble and became “a fast learner, a fast talker, a corner cutter.” His adventures included trips to the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, where he and his friends dropped their trousers to moon the residents. Aimless and without ambition, he did not appear destined for much.

But there was another side to Mokhtar — the autodidact who loved to read and who crammed all the books he had found or stolen onto a shelf in the kitchen pantry: the Goosebumps novels, “The Lord of the Rings,” and especially the Harry Potter books. When Mokhtar daydreamed, “his mind drifted and allowed the possibility that maybe he was, like Harry, part of this hardscrabble world for now, but destined for something more.”

By the time Mokhtar was in eighth grade, his parents worried he was going astray and decided he should spend time with his wealthy grandfather in Yemen. Maybe the change of location and immersion in history would do him good.

Mokhtar spoke some Arabic, but a street-smart American kid from the Tenderloin was predictably out of place in rural Yemen. Unfamiliar with local customs, he didn’t know how to dress, speak, eat or walk like a proper Yemeni.

This is where you expect the story to take a familiar turn: A smart Muslim kid from a rough neighborhood in the West, sent back to the motherland in an attempt to strengthen his roots, instead becomes disillusioned and lost between two identities before he finds solace and purpose in religious fundamentalism and jihad. Right?

Well, no.

Under the tutelage of his businessman grandfather, who brings him to meetings and on work trips, the adolescent Mokhtar is converted instead to the religion of capitalism. Back in America he takes a high school job at Banana Republic and starts dressing in sweater vests. His friends began calling him Rupert after the dapper comic-strip bear.

This book is about Mokhtar’s journey from the Tenderloin to the mountains of Yemen in pursuit of a dream. It is also about his personal journey, as he learns to navigate two identities and begins to find his true self…

Read the whole review here.

 

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