Until five years ago Mokhtar Alkhanshali never drank coffee. As a doorman — or “lobby ambassador” — at the Infinity, a luxe apartment complex opposite the Google offices in San Francisco, his stimulant of choice was Red Bull. “The only coffee I’d ever been exposed to was cheap diner coffee that you need stupid amounts of cream and sugar to make drinkable.”
Growing up in San Francisco’s hard-as-nails Tenderloin district, he had no idea that his ancestral homeland, Yemen, was the country that originally brought coffee to the world. He didn’t know anything about varietals or supply-chain management or how to win the respect of the farmers in Yemen’s remote coffee-growing regions, where business is often conducted under AK47 guard and a hand grenade attached to your lapel shows that you’re serious. And he certainly didn’t know how to export coffee beans from a war zone — a task not made easier by Donald Trump deciding to ban all Yemenis from the US.
But now Alkhanshali knows all about those things. His coffee, Port of Mokha, farmed and processed amid the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, was rated an unprecedented 97 out of 100 in blind tastings by Coffee Review — making it “officially” the world’s best. And Alkhanshali’s amazing life story, climaxing in a daring escape across the Red Sea just as the Saudi bombs were falling, is the subject of an extraordinary work of nonfiction by Dave Eggers, the author of The Circle and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s called The Monk of Mokha.
“I don’t think I could have done this if it was a different writer,” Alkhanshali says. “Your life story is your most personal asset. It’s hard to be vulnerable with a lot of people, but with Dave I was. There are lots of parts that are hilarious, but we also went through a lot of tissues.”
There follows an extraordinary adventure, in which Alkhanshali persuades a Dutch coffee expert, Willem Boot, to train him as a Q-grade taster; returns to his grandfather’s home in Ibb to set up his business; tours the country’s coffee-growing regions; chews a lot of khat; and finally finds his farm. And just as it seems as if he is finally getting somewhere, political instability in Yemen explodes into full-blown civil war. In March 2015 he woke up to find the capital, Sanaa, under bombardment from the Saudi air force. “It was a blitzkrieg. I was planning to go to a huge coffee conference in Seattle. And I looked out and it was like laser beams in the sky. But they were anti-aircraft guns.”
The American government provided no assistance to the Yemeni-Americans trapped in the country. He hitched a lift from Sanaa to Aden with a driver whom he came to suspect was a Houthi rebel; then he was kidnapped and held in jail; and finally he made his way to Mokha where he and a fellow American made it on to a small dinghy. Without any navigational equipment they crossed the pirate-infested Red Sea to Djibouti, with their coffee samples intact. “It was a terrible option, but it was the only option.”
He describes it as the lowest point in his life. “People ask how I was able to keep calm. My only answer is faith. Being able to let go and put your faith in a higher being — it’s liberating. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to laugh at these awful moments.”
There isn’t exactly a happy ending. The war has been raging for three years, causing 3.3 million to be displaced, more than a million cases of cholera, and putting 7 million at risk of starvation. For the tens of thousands of farmers that Alkhanshali works with across three regions, coffee is their only means of survival. Alkhanshali has set up the Mokha Foundation to provide assistance to farmers, including a coffee-tree nursery.
“We’re able to give them microloans to pay for things like weddings and tuition. They pay us back in coffee cherries. It’s been really challenging getting the coffee shipped out of Yemen. The cost of production has been so expensive.” His coffee costs — wait for it — $16 (£12) a cup and $48 (£36) for a 4oz box (that’s 113g, half the size of a standard pouch of speciality coffee). But hey, it is the best coffee in the world and it’s produced in unimaginably difficult circumstances. “And people in San Francisco pay $20 for a glass of wine and don’t even think about it.”
He hasn’t been helped by the Trump administration; Yemenis are prevented from entering the US under the travel ban. “It’s a bleak and difficult reality, but when I see this coffee being drunk in San Francisco or London or Paris, and people learning about Yemen through a different prism than war, it warms my heart.” He hopes that the book will allow people to see that Yemen is not simply a war zone, but one of the most fertile places on Earth.
“In the Oval Office we have a person whose political base wants to deport, ban and stigmatise entire groups of people. Yemen has made the cut in each version of the travel ban,” he says. “But my book tells the story of bridgers, US citizens who maintain relations with the country of their ancestors. This is what makes America so beautiful.”
Ultimately, Alkhanshali’s story is a rewired version of the American Dream for the globalised era. “Yes, there are systems of oppression that hold us down, but your will is more powerful than that.”
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers is published by Hamish Hamilton on January 25, £18.99