It’s difficult to tell where a reader can or should stand by the end of Dave Eggers‘ The Monk of Mokha. On one hand, it’s a compelling story of one man, Yemeni native Mokhtar Alkhansali, and his seemingly impossible quest to bring high quality coffee from his country to the United States. In American culture in these times, however, the relevance of empathy has become more divisive than ever. As we live under the boot heel of a United States President and his sycophantic Republican Party that has no interest in empathy or otherwise imaging life in “another person’s shoes” (thus betraying the potential of imaginative possibilities), we seem to have abandoned the potential of the liberal tradition. Wherein understanding is synonymous with compassion, the effort Eggers has extended through most of his publishing career should be applauded. Sometimes, however, the aspirations and reach of a writer like Eggers can make even an admirable, righteous text like The Monk of Mokha a periodically tedious narrative. Indeed, The Monk of Mokha starts strong but slogs its way through its final act.
Still, there’s much to admire about Eggers’ approach. He is a writer/activist whose nonfiction work (such as 2009’s Zeitoun) has gone far from the insistent “I” so prevalent in the memoirs of his contemporaries. His 2006 novel, What Is the What fictionalized the like of a Sudanese “Lost Boy“, and the end result was equal parts problematic and interesting. Look at the growth of Eggers’ 826 Valencia literacy project from its original location in San Francisco to chapters around the country, and the oral history initiative Voices of Witness continues to give voice to the marginalized and unheard.
What works best in The Monk of Mokha is the picture we first get of Mokhtar. We might initially think this is another variation on the life of a second-generation immigrant as he tries to assimilate into San Francisco life. But then it becomes a tale of high-class coffee culture. “Sometimes he sighs. Sometimes he wonders at his existence, his good fortune, being a poor kid from the Tenderloin who now has found some significant success as a coffee importer.” Eggers clearly admires Mokhtar and he wants this feeling to be infectious. He wants us to agree that we live in a country of “…radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome.” However, things fall apart soon for young Mokhtar, an autodidact, an ambitious young man without much direction, and he ends up working as a doorman. He might have been spending his spare time reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the works of Noam Chomsky, and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, but as a doorman he has limited options and he would not be seen as anything but a young man whose purpose is just to serve and literally open doors for others while entrance to a higher place remains closed to him.
Mokhtar is an undeniably irresistible character as we first meet him. His teachers love him. He acquires books and escapes in the fantasy of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. As he grows, though, he becomes “an agent of chaos”, a troublemaker, and he is sent to Yemen. He manages to fit in by becoming “super-Yemeni”. He eventually makes his way back to San Francisco and tries his hand at selling cars. He remains restless, going to college, getting bored, and losing direction. The irony is not lost on the reader that Mokhtar’s finite life as a doorman at a place called “Infinity” means he is stationed at a desk, never moving unless compelled to do so by a resident, and options for advancement are minimal, at best.
Mokhtar’s story is interesting. The problem is, however, that it takes a long time for things to happen and the reader might become restless. By the time we reach Chapter X, “The Statue”, things pick up. Mokhtar’s girlfriend tells him of a statue across the road from where he sits at his doorman’s desk. It’s a 20ft high statue of a Yemeni man drinking coffee, and its purpose is to celebrate the invention of the vacuum pack. This is Hills Brothers Coffee, and Eggers takes a deep, necessary dive into the origins of coffee evolution and popularity in the United States. Mokhtar’s mother tells him:
…Don’t you know Yemenis were the first to export coffee? Yemenis basically invented coffee. You didn’t know this?
It’s here where Eggers introduces somebody who could arguably seen as the book’s hero. We know Mokhtar is on the heroic journey, but there’s another son of Arabia who built the bean into something legendary:
Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili, a Sufi holy man living in Mokha… first brewed the bean into a semblance of what we now recognize as coffee… He and his fellow Sufi monks used the beverage in their ceremonies celebrating God… The coffee helped bring them to a kind of religious ecstasy…
The world of coffee connoisseurs and that big budget high culture society is nicely illustrated throughout The Monk of Mokha. The words “toasty” and “fruity” are rampant, and Mokhtar needs to become part of that culture. Certainly the story Eggers wants to tell here involves the heroic journey Mokhtar takes from being an aimless 20-something Yemeni immigrant to an empire king who brings the beans to the United States from Yemen at the risk of his own life. The deeper story is political, and Eggers makes that clear:
Even a four dollar cup [of coffee] was miraculous, given how many people were involved… in that four dollar cup… even at four dollars a cup, chances were that some person-or many people, or hundreds of people-along the line were being taken, underpaid, exploited.
Fans of deeper dive history passages will find plenty to savor in The Monk of Mokha. We learn about the three waves of coffee. In the first, during the early 20th century, instant coffee and vacuum packing evolved. In the second, socially-minded American entrepreneurs of the ’60s and ’70s, like Alfred Peet (of Peet’s Coffee) and Howard Schultz (of Starbucks) combined social causes with the very social space cafés. Eggers notes here that “…many in the coffee world wanted to return… to a[n] artisanal approach to roasting and brewing, where the emphasis would be squarely on the coffee itself.” The third wave of the coffee craze in the US involves independently owned and operated coffee roasters that focused on the countries of origin for their respective coffees.
This is where Mokhtar will come in, not just as a Yemeni coffee roaster but also as a vehicle for Eggers’s message. Here iss a young man in his mid-20s willing to embark on a dangerous and insane quest to recreate that trade route and re-ignite the trade itself. He manages to persuade hundreds of coffee farmers in his homeland to give up growing khat (a native tobacco-like product) and start growing Arabica. This is all undertaken by Mokhtar in time when Yemen is exploding in sectarian war and famine.
There’s a degree of grace and beauty as The Monk of Mokhta comes to an end. After miraculously returning to the United States, rattled but still determined to tell his story, Mokhtar speaks to his friend about Yemen, “…about dodging bombs and Houthis to get coffee out of the country. About his farmers, how… he’d be shipping a container full of the finest coffee in the world out of Yemen and to Oakland. And how he wanted to be in the Infinity, overlooking the Bay, when that ship came in.” The metaphors abound and Eggers isn’t afraid to embrace them.
Unfortunately, the end result of Eggers’ meticulous approach to his lead character here is a little too shiny, a little too glossy. Mokhtar is brave and resilient, but he’s also oversized. It’s hard to think Mokhtar can easily fit into this perfect suit Eggers has made for him. Sometimes an excess of empathy serves only to cover up a character’s blemishes. More flaws and less extended covert espionage and dangerous chase scenes in Yemen would have made The Monk of Mokha a strong and politicized work rather than an excessively precious story of an immigrant’s American success story.