Review: David Egger’s “The Monk of Mokha” tells the story of coffee and Yemen

At times, David Egger’s thrilling nonfiction story, “The Monk of Mokha” is more exciting and unbelievable than any fiction novel.

The main character of the book, a Yemeni-American man named Mokhtar Alkhanshali, struggles to find his calling in life while growing up poor in the Tenderloin of San Francisco — a particularly violent neighborhood. After losing the money and resources he needed for college, Mokhtar drops out after his first year and takes a job as a doorman at the fancy apartment building that his brother works for. This is where he finds his calling in life.

When he looks across the street from work and sees a 20 foot statue of a Yemeni man drinking coffee, he is inspired to explore the history of the drink. After realizing that it originated in Yemen, he decides he’s going to bring Yemeni coffee to the United States. It is clear that his desire to do this stems from his pride and love for Yemen. He sees his people being discriminated against and looked down upon by Americans, and believes that making Yemen coffee a staple in the United States could be a step toward fixing these problems.

It is no secret that coffee is a widely beloved commodity. College students would find late-night study sessions impossible to get through without it. A survey done by the National Coffee Association reported that 64 percent of Americans over age 18 said they drank a cup of coffee the previous day. The intrigue of coffee’s history and Yemen’s place in it is enough to make this book a good read. However, readers are in for much more than a book about coffee.

As recent news has reported, Yemen is a country that is currently in complete disarray; civil war is breaking out and bombs are reigning down. Once he gathered his coffee, Mokhtar has to find his way out of Yemen while dodging bombs, escaping kidnappers and paddling his way across the Red Sea in a dingy fishboat with no motor.

In one instance, he and his comrades had been kidnapped by masked men with AK-47s. On the brink of certain death, Mokhtar is rescued by a friend — they had to leave that instant before they were found out. The first thing out of Mokhtar’s mouth upon escape was, “My samples. They’re in a black Samsonite. I can’t leave without them.” He is referring to his coffee beans. It was clear to those around him how absurd this idea was — risking life and limb to retrieve coffee beans. “It’s my whole life,” he says to their blank stares. It is then decided that they cannot leave without his coffee samples, no matter how dangerous it might be to retrieve them.

There are many social, political and cultural implications surrounding this book. The author touches on the travel ban, racism, bias, elitism, terrorism, cultural inequality and so many other relevant topics, yet none of them overtake the story. Instead, they are naturally woven within Mokhtar’s journey throughout Yemen.

Readers experience these injustices as obstacles to Mokhtar’s dream. Racism is clear in the airport when he is trying to catch a flight to America and is stopped and questioned an excessive amount of times because of his appearance. Cultural inequality is seen through the terrible working conditions that the coffee sorters in Yemen have to deal with. Terrorism is experienced when Mokhtar is kidnapped and threatened with death multiple times because one of his comrades looked like a “Houthis” — a group of Yemeni Muslims who overthrew the Yemen government in 2014.

This book tells the story of a man who felt that coffee could change his world, and while it isn’t set up to teach, readers can learn a lot from it.

“The Monk of Mokha” is an inspiring, informative and beautiful coming of age story that will make readers fall in love with coffee and Yemen’s role in it.

While explaining his story with words that he thought might be his last, Mokhtar said,“We have the chance to make coffee great, to show the world we have more than civil war.”

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