The subject of Dave Eggers’ best-seller has a true-life story of discovery, escape and coffee.
MOKHTAR ALKHANSHALI IS the protagonist of The Monk of Mokha, the recent best-seller by famed Sausalito-based author Dave Eggers. A son of Yemeni emigre parents, Alkhanshali grew up in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin and is now the 30-year-old founder and CEO of Port of Mokha coffee in Oakland.
The book is nonfiction: Alkhanshali is a living, breathing person; his experiences and exploits really happened. Eggers spent three years and hundreds of hours interviewing Alkhanshali and retracing most of his steps.
At its core, the story is about invincibility of spirit. Overcoming his hardscrabble childhood, Alkhanshali worked at jobs selling fuel-efficient Hondas and preppy Banana Republic button-downs, but he was restless — always thinking there must be more. He thought being a doorman, or “lobby ambassador,” at a pricey San Francisco condominium tower would finally provide the answer to what he wanted to do with his life. And in a way, it did.
And that’s where The Monk of Mokha takes off like a jolt of espresso, as Alkhanshali begins to explore the world of coffee. Not any coffee, but Yemeni coffee. Though coffee arguably originated in Yemen, that was 500 years and millions of cups ago. Alkhanshali journeys to reconnect with his Yemeni ancestors and to restore honor to Yemen’s beleaguered coffee growers. Never mind that he knew very little about coffee and had even less money and that Yemen was embroiled in a dangerous civil war.
From selling Hondas in Oakland to crossing the Red Sea in a skiff and landing in Djibouti, how did you recall the details of your many experiences? Did you keep a journal? Or did Dave Eggers dig these memories out of you? Great question. I met Dave and began this book just a couple of weeks after I escaped. Dave had the foresight to have me start backwards so all the details from my escape were still fresh in my mind. The level of detail in the last third of the book is really incredible and that’s why the last third is so intense. The rest of my life stories came out in those three years of interviews. Every few weeks I would remember something and tell Dave. He also interviewed my close friends and family. Probably the biggest help for Dave in all of this was the fact that I am a millennial and so my life was well documented, between Facebook and Instagram.
Readers in Marin might like to know the role Mill Valley’s Willem Boot played in your immersion into the finer points of coffee connoisseurship. Willem is my coffee Mr. Miyagi. It was at his hands that I learned the arts of coffee making. Roasters, farmers and baristas from all over the world flock to Boot Coffee, located now in San Rafael. Their tagline is “master coffee with coffee masters,” and that they are. My friendship with Willem and his wife, Catherine, has been an incredible blessing in my life.
Were there language problems as you traveled across Yemen? When I was finishing middle school I was getting into a lot of trouble in and outside of school. My parents couldn’t handle me anymore and made the decision to send me to Yemen to live with my grandparents. It was sort of like boot camp. While I was there I was able to learn Arabic at an academic level and spend time with my grandfather Hamood. I saw how he dealt with various tribes and situations and how he carried himself. He is the patriarch of our family. This time that I spent in Yemen would be the reason why years later when I started this coffee project I would be able to work with different tribes. I was able to adapt and speak in the various dialects.
On your first trip into Yemen, was there a time you felt this is it; there is no way I can get past this interrogation, this checkpoint or this customs inspection? My first farm visit was one I can never forget. We turned a corner and immediately we were ambushed by men with assault rifles. I had never had someone point a rifle to my face and it was very frightening. After we passed I asked the driver what happened and he said that they were looking for a rival tribe. He then looked at me and said, “Luckily we aren’t from that tribe today,” and laughed.
What was your scariest encounter? The last third of the book deals with my attempts to escape and my subsequent kidnapping and what I had to endure. Being blindfolded and hands tied behind my back. Waking up in the middle of the night and seeing six men storm into the room with their faces covered and all pointing their rifles at me. Risking my life and crossing the Red Sea on a small boat. There are a lot of scary moments.
Tell us a bit about Port of Mokha. Our coffee was rated the number one coffee of 2017 by the Coffee Review. You will taste sweet jam, tropical and floral notes and hints of cocoa. A sweet lingering aftertaste, coffee that is pure pleasure. We are lucky to work with some incredible roasters that can expertly brew you a cup of our coffee. In the Marin area we are proud to partner with Equator Coffees & Teas. [Equator’s] Helen Russell, Brooke McDonnell and Maureen McHugh are three of my heroes. On our website, we have our trilogy and single boxes and we just launched our Mokha Monthly subscription that to me is my favorite thing. It’s $28 a month for your fancy weekend coffee. I love what I do. Port of Mokha coffee is a way for anyone reading this and who reads Dave’s book to be a part of the story and bring about real support [for growers and laborers]. As consumers we have so much more power than we think; when we buy a cup of coffee, we have the ability to uplift rather than exploit and when we decide to go cheap, someone pays the consequence for that. Coffee is an amazing way for us to build community and have moments together. I believe the shortest distance between two people is a cup of coffee.