Book Review: The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

The first time I read Dave Eggers was out of sheer curiosity. In 2006, Eggers published What is the What , telling the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan who had had enormous press addressing their inconceivable crossing of three countries by foot to find survival, and then transported to the USA to establish new lives.  They were scattered across the USA and settled into apartments – none of them having never seen a toilet before. The culture shock was all-encompassing for those young men. I had read first-hand accounts of this experience in my ESL composition class, as some lost boys landed in Virginia Beach.  I often received requests for one of the them to come and speak at some organization’s  meeting. To my eye, however, it was just a dog and pony show, as at the end of the night the speakers went back to their lonely apartments and carried on trying to figure this place out. I read What is the What because I wanted to see what Dave Eggers did with all that. 

Eggers got it. So, it was with much expectation that I checked out his most recent book, The Monk of Mokha, which tells the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the American-born son of immigrants from Yemen. Mokhtar struggles to find his place in this country, so different to his parents’ homeland, but eventually he realizes his destiny is to bring Yemen coffee, the best coffee  in the world, to the good old USA.  Mokhtar has no money. No education past high school.  And, oh yeah, Yemen had been at war since 2014 when Houthi insurgents took control of the country’s capitol. However, Mokhtar dreams of delivering respect and wonder back to Yemen, the country of his heritage, through bringing the best coffee in the world to the American people. Eggers, in this page-turner, tells the reader exactly how this remarkable young man accomplished this self-imposed task.

The story itself also tells the reader about coffee. Eggers begins with the tale of the shepherd on the Ethiopian plateau noticing the over-activity of his goats, and he sees that the goats have been eating berries from a certain tree. The shepherd takes his tale to the local monastery, and before long, coffee cultivation and trade began on the Arabian peninsula. Yemen was growing coffee by the 15th century. In the 1700’s, there were over 300 coffee houses in London. As Mokhtar pursues his dream, the reader learns with him the ten steps required between the harvesting of the berries to delivering a cup of coffee.  

And of course, the reader learns about Yemen, a country suffering through a civil war. However, as we follow Mokhtar around Yemen, the reader leaves the bombed-out cities often seen on the news reports and into the country’s lush rolling countryside, green with coffee and qat plants. Through Eggers’ brilliant writing, it is as if reader is standing next to Mokhtar, who speaks Arabic,  as he meets an endless stream of village elders whom he is trying to persuade to trust him  and work with him in bringing prosperity to Yemen through her coffee. The reader learns of Yemeni culture and traditions, their daily lives, and their unwavering values through Mokhtar’s engaging conversations  and interactions with the Yemini people.

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