“This is what the American Dream looks like now” – The Monk of Mokha by Dave Egger

I know people who just can’t abide Dave Eggers. They won’t read anything by him. They have an idea in their heads (based, it seems to me, on the first thirty or so pages of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the odd McSweeneys ad that pops up on their Facebook feed) and it’s fixed, with the kind of glue you used to get in a pot without a lid and that can only be applied with a dirty brush. It’s a view that sits awkwardly alongside 826 National, the network of youth writing and tutoring centres across the US, and ScholarMatch, which connects donors and students to make college accessible, and Voice of Witness, the book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. (Disliking Dave Eggers – and it’s the person rather than the books, because the people I know who don’t like Dave Eggers don’t read his books – is a little like asking what did the Romans do for us. You end up with a lot of exceptions.) You can see this spirit in much of his nonfiction, particularly in the loose trilogy that began with What is the What, continued with Zeitoun and now encompasses The Monk of Mokha.

This is the true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a young Yemeni American raised in San Francisco who, having tried his hand at various jobs (doorman, care salesman), hears the call of coffee. Although there are divergent accounts of where coffee began (Ethiopia dukes it out with Yemen as the great originator), Mokhtar’s homeland has as fair a claim as any; however, with the growth of what is called ‘speciality coffee’, and with the troubles Yemen has experienced politically, it’s lost its standing in the coffee market. Mokhtar sets out to change all of that. Along the way, Eggers provides a potted history of coffee (the history of coffee is a history of theft – the plant existed in maybe a couple of places and then various diplomats and explorers stole plants and coffee was grown elsewhere). But it is Mokhtar’s story – his attempts to learn, his persistence in the face of various setbacks, his ambition – that makes for an inspiring read. The Monk of Mokhtar is basically Eggers saying, this is what the American Dream looks like now.

Any Cop?: It’s written in a zippy, light way so that, even when Mokhtar’s time in Yemen becomes somewhat hairy (in a way that recalls Delisle’s Hostage), The Monk of Mokhtar never becomes heavy. This is a celebration, the story of how a person overcomes adversity to realise an incredible dream, and we’re glad Eggers took the time to share it.

 

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