No or­di­nary joe

Dave Eg­gers’ new book ex­plains just why your cup of cof­fee is so ex­pen­sive

Esquire (UK) - - Culture -

Should you find your­self in the habit of com­plain­ing about the crip­pling cost of your morning cor­tado, you might wish to leaf through The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eg­gers, to re­mind your­self that, per­haps, the price you’re pay­ing is not nearly high enough.

The non-fic­tion work fol­lows the ex­ploits of Mokhtar Alkhan­shali, an en­ter­pris­ing Ye­meni-Amer­i­can who was work­ing as a door­man at a fancy apart­ment build­ing in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area when he stum­bled upon a plan to re­vive the cof­fee in­dus­try in the coun­try from which his par­ents em­i­grated.

Ye­men, Alkhan­shali dis­cov­ered, could le­git­i­mately claim to have been the birth­place of cof­fee. While the prop­er­ties of the cof­fee plant were thought to have been first ob­served by a shep­herd in Ethiopia, whose sheep be­came un­ex­pect­edly lively af­ter eat­ing the berries, it was a Sufi holy man in Ye­men who first brewed the beans into some­thing like what we know as cof­fee for use in all-nighter cer­e­monies (prov­ing that one man’s re­li­gious ec­stasy is an­other’s morning pick-me-up). When pro­cessed prop­erly, the na­tive beans, Alkhan­shali dis­cov­ered, had the po­ten­tial to rank among the best in the world. He de­cided to spread the word.

How­ever, there was one prob­lem: Ye­men. As Alkhan­shali was en­light­en­ing him­self — and us — about the his­tory, pro­duc­tion and phe­nom­e­non of cof­fee (if you fi­nally want to find out the dif­fer­ence be­tween a sec­on­dand third-gen­er­a­tion cof­fee shop you can do so here), his coun­try is go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Af­ter the prom­ise of the Arab Spring, a power vac­uum leads to civil war, Saudi-ini­ti­ated mil­i­tary strikes and famine, not to men­tion the rise of al-Qaida and Isis, all of which makes the prospect of buy­ing and ship­ping cof­fee to smug North­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans a much trick­ier prospect.

Eg­gers, who some might count among those smug North­ern Cal­i­for­ni­ans, nev­er­the­less does an ad­mirable job of delv­ing deep — very deep — into the life of an­other man, as he did with child refugee Valentino Achak Deng in What is the What (2006), and Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina sur­vivor Ab­dul­rah­man Zeitoun in 2009’s Zeitoun. Yes, it’s ter­ri­bly wor­thy, and no, the sub­ject is not a can­di­date for the kind of satir­i­cal de­tach­ment Eg­gers achieves in some of his fic­tion works, such as 2013’s tech­noc­racy take-off The Cir­cle, but it’ll open your eyes — very wide — to the sin­gu­lar ori­gins of your sin­gle ori­gin.

The Monk of Mokha (Hamish Hamil­ton) by Dave Eg­gers is pub­lished on 25 Jan­uary

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