The Monk Of Mokha

Dave Eggers

Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

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Review by Nick Major

IN April 2015, a man carrying a few suitcases full of coffee beans stepped off a plane in San Francisco. He had just flown in from Yemen. Local, national and global media greeted him on his arrival. He gave a few interviews, including one to the BBC. The next day, he flew to Seattle to showcase his produce at the annual Speciality Coffee Association of America conference. In a taxi, he heard his own voice on the radio. It was the BBC interview. “This guy’s crazy," the driver said, not realising that the crazy man was riding in the car.

After reading The Monk Of Mokha, Dave Eggers’s account of Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s quest to resurrect the Yemeni coffee trade – a book that sounds like it was written to sit, unread, on the coffee tables of moustachioed hipsters the world over – I can report back that the cabbie is correct: Alkhanshali is a bona fide madman. I can also report that, upon finishing this book, I looked like a madman: I had a nervous twitch in my reddened left eye, a sore head – both caused by an all-night caffeine binge – a crick in my neck, and a paralysis in my hands, the fingernails of which were bitten to the base. I wish I could have put the damn thing down.

It was not Eggers’s utilitarian prose that kept me awake; rather, it was the story and the man behind it. Eggers has created a whirlwind of a book: a whistle-stop tour of Yemen, a history of coffee ("the wine of Islam") – discovered in Ethiopia but first brewed in the Yemeni town of Mokha – and a biography of Alkhanshali and the Yemeni-American community in San Francisco. After describing his initial meeting with his subject, Eggers fades into the background, until one last teary Hollywood moment. His presence is registered only in the occasional detail or the carefully-placed scene that pulls the narrative together.

The last third of the book, for example, contains an adventure story that readers of John Buchan or RL Stevenson would enjoy. Alkhanshali is living in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, and has recently opened a production plant for his coffee beans. The country is riven with civil war: Houthi rebels have taken over the government, al-Qaeda and Isis are taking advantage of the chaos, and Saudi Arabia are dropping US-manufactured bombs left right and centre, some of which have destroyed the main airport. The US has closed its embassy and effectively abandoned thousands of its citizens, including Alkhanshali. But, he needs to get his coffee samples out of the country poste-haste – you see how absurd this is? – and has heard a Greek ship is due to leave the port of Aden in nine hours. Naturally, he finds two friends of friends who rent a truck and drive him through a warzone at night.

Unbelievably, his drivers dodge fire and mortar, and are waved through various Houthi checkpoints. They make it to Aden as the sun is coming up. Unfortunately, a "popular committee" – groups of locals loyal to the government – arrest them. Alkhanshali, who can talk his way around the barrel of an AK47, persuades the committee to release them. "They were led outside, and it was only then that Mokhtar saw that on the front of the truck, the truck they’d driven nine hours through the night, there was a bumper sticker that said: "God is great. Death to America." It was the Houthi slogan, rendered in Iranian colors. It was no wonder they’d been waved through all the Houthi checkpoints."

This is only one of many such episodes, and it is even more entertaining – if that is the right word – when you know Alkhanshali is as American as apple pie and the least likely person to wish ill on his home. As Eggers says in the introduction, the story here "is an old-fashioned one. It’s chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat". Alive because of men like Alkhanshali, who goes from San Franciscan doorman to successful coffee exporter; under threat because of the "active harassment" of Muslims in America. Eggers starts writing in 2015 when this trend seems to be slowing under President Obama. By the time Eggers is putting his finishing touches to the manuscript, Donald Trump is trying to enact his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. People like Alkhanshali, who walk around San Francisco wearing T-shirts that read "Make coffee, not war" are now making grim jokes about what might happen to Muslim Americans if there is another domestic terrorist incident.

Eggers is probably known more for his memoir A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius than his novels, but he has previous form with books that tell a gold-nugget of a story while also highlighting the plight of the oppressed. Zeitoun was about a Syrian-American man in New Orleans who used his own boat to rescue his fellow citizens during Hurricane Katrina, only for the American authorities to arrest him at gun-point and imprison him without charge. Or, there was What Is The What, about one of the Sudanese "lost boys" who fled the second civil war on foot and ended up in America. Along with The Monk Of Mokha, these three books form a neat triumvirate of American survival tales. As scatterbrained as I felt after finishing this latest one, I’d still recommend you pour yourself a cup of java and sit up all night reading it.