Dave Eg­gers brews up a rich story of cof­fee en­tre­pre­neur

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Mark Athi­takis

In 2013, Mokhtar Alkhan­shali was a twen­tysome­thing San Fran­cis­can who dreamed of re­viv­ing the cof­fee in­dus­try in his fam­ily’s na­tive Ye­men. He was savvy enough to draft a for­mal busi­ness plan, but the po­ten­tial threats he cited would give a For­tune 500 CEO pause: “Al-Qaeda, cor­rupt govern­ment, pi­rates in the Red Sea, tribal vi­o­lence.”

In The Monk of Mokha (★★★g), Dave Eg­gers chron­i­cles Alkhan­shali’s head­strong, har­row­ing and ul­ti­mately in­spi­ra­tional jour­ney to launch a busi­ness in a coun­try de­scend­ing into civil war.

Along the way, Eg­gers de­liv­ers a con­cise his­tory of cof­fee and its roots in Ye­men, re­ports on a cof­fee cul­ture where con­sumers can be as per­snick­ety as som­me­liers, and sketches out the strife that has dev­as­tated the Mid­dle Eastern coun­try since 2011’s Arab Spring.

Alkhan­shali is an en­gag­ing fig­ure to con­nect those threads.

Raised in San Fran­cisco’s poor Ten­der­loin neigh­bor­hood, he was street­wise and a born sales­man.

“The Ten­der­loin taught you to think quick, talk fast,” Eg­gers writes. “You had to lis­ten and as­sim­i­late. If you sounded ig­no­rant, you got taken.”

Af­ter a semester of col­lege, though, Alkhan­shali was stuck as a door­man at a San Fran­cisco high-rise, look­ing at the for­mer Hills Broth­ers head­quar­ters across the street.

The statue of the cof­fee com­pany’s Arab mas­cot mo­ti­vated him to put his hus­tle to work. Ye­men had the farms and peo­ple ea­ger to work, he learned, but not the in­fra­struc­ture and qual­ity con­trol. Bet­ter qual­ity would mean bet­ter pay.

Eg­gers points out that our jokes about over­priced lat­tes are mis­guided. Be­cause cof­fee’s sup­ply chain is so com­plex — har­vest­ing, se­lect­ing, roast­ing, ship­ping — most cups are likely un­der­priced.

“Even a four-dol­lar cup was mirac­u­lous, given how many peo­ple were in­volved,” he writes. “Chances were some per­son — or many peo­ple, or hun­dreds of peo­ple — along the line were be­ing taken, un­der­paid, ex­ploited.”

Alkhan­shali had the bad luck of start­ing his busi­ness in earnest in late 2014, as rebel Houthis in north­ern Ye­men took over the coun­try. Neigh­bor­ing Saudi Ara­bia de­stroyed air­port run­ways, and in­ter­nal fight­ing made driv­ing in­side the coun­try treach­er­ous.

In plain­spo­ken but grip­ping prose, Eg­gers de­scribes Alkhan­shali’s des­per­ate ef­fort to get out of the coun­try to fi­nal­ize his first ship­ment. Houthis rou­tinely de­tained him and his co­hort.

But, Eg­gers sug­gests, Alkhan­shali’s Ten­der­loin-bred gift of gab helped him fi­nally es­cape through Mokha, a Ye­meni port town that was one of the first cof­fee hubs.

“The whole planet drinks cof­fee, but it was born here,” he tells one man who’s de­tained him. “We should be proud of this. The world should know this.”

It does, now: Alkhan­shali’s com­pany, Port of Mokha, sells cof­fee on­line and in high-end cafés. Eg­gers can’t dis­guise his en­thu­si­asm for his sub­ject in the book’s clos­ing pages, as Alkhan­shali’s first ship­ment ar­rives in San Fran­cisco Bay.

That pride echoes the in­clu­sive, moral sen­si­bil­ity of Eg­gers’ nov­els in­clud­ing A Holo­gram for the King and The Cir­cle. That style works ef­fec­tively with Alkhan­shali’s story, too: It dives deep into a cri­sis but de­liv­ers a jolt of up­lift as well.

JEREMY STERN

Dave Eg­gers, left, with cof­fee en­tre­pre­neur Mokhtar Alkhan­shali.

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