Magazine article The Spectator

'The Monk of Mokha', by Dave Eggers - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Monk of Mokha', by Dave Eggers - Review

Article excerpt

'This guy's crazy,' says a taxi driver, listening to a BBC interview with a man who has decided to become the first exporter of coffee from Mokha, Yemen, in 80 years. The man being interviewed, we have learned, has risked his life quite a few times over, in the most hair-raising ways imaginable it would seem, to achieve his dream of putting Yemeni coffee back on the map. We meet this taxi driver towards the end of the book, and although he does not know that the man being interviewed is actually sitting in the back of his cab, by this stage we have come to think that, yes, the man concerned, one Mokhtar Alkhanshali, is crazy.

Coffee was discovered -- or, to be more accurate, the beverage invented -- in Yemen. (In Ethiopia, where a goatherd first noticed how frisky his charges became after chewing the raw beans, there was little or no preparation of the bean itself.) But the region lost its pre-eminence, and by the beginning of the 21st century coffee from Yemen was of wildly unpredictable quality, and there wasn't even much of it anyway: most coffee farmers had gone over to producing khat, which was much more profitable. And when Dave Eggers explains the economics behind the price of an ordinary cup of coffee, you begin to understand why. For a cheapish cup of high street coffee, it is important that the person who grew the crop in the first place is paid a pittance.

That said, we all know of the rise of the artisan coffee shop, whose prices and affectations surpass the ridiculous. Eggers writes in his introduction:

Before embarking on this project, I was a casual coffee drinker and a great sceptic of specialty coffee. I thought it was too expensive, and that anyone who cared so much about how coffee was brewed, or where it came from, or waited in line for certain coffees made certain ways, was pretentious and a fool.

Amen to that. But this book is not really about coffee: it is about the American Dream explicitly; and implicitly about the threat that it is under.

Mokhtar grew up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, the city's most brutalised area; his first memory is of a man in rags jumping onto a Mercedes stuck in traffic and defecating on it -- an extravagant, if not wholly untypical or unforeseeable example of daily life there. …

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