A Tiny Bit of Background
Dave Eggers captivated me with The Circle, his eery corporate management by “like” novel that resonates with me becasue of my own experience in a culture that has a similar idea-sprouting routine (happily mine is nice, not menacing). His newest book, The Monk of Mokha, is a nonfiction account of a young man, a child of immigrants, who chose success.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali is a 24 year old Yemeni American, working as a doorman in San Francisco and trying to go to college, when his girl friend says “You ever looked across the street?” That simple phrase, and the iconic statute it pointed to, started a rise to riches like something from an 19th century Horatio Alger novel.
Hills Brother’s Coffee statute and logo
Maybe you’ve heard of Arabica coffee? Sounds a lot like….Arabic. Don’t worry, I didn’t catch that till I read the book, either! Apparently Hills Brothers Coffee had–they put a stereotypical old school Yemeni on their can and made him a statue at their old corporate head quarters–across from where Maktar and his girl friend were talking that fateful night.
Well, it turns out coffee originates in Yemen. The same Yemen now enduring war and famine. But, coffee farmers there didn’t really know what they were growing–at least not in terms of what well-heeled San Franciscan, and Americans in general, would pay for the world’s best cup of coffee. Happily, Mokhtar had a wild idea to make Yemeni coffee known as the world’s best. Happier still, he spoke the language fluently, had a group of fellow Yemenis and others in San Francisco and elsewhere to bankroll his dream and the tenacity to stick with it.
What impressed me was that Mokhtar grew up in a dirt poor neighborhood full of those entertainment places whose name brings lots of spam so I won’t say it, as well as guns, an open drug market and lots of booze. The schools were pretty bad. Yemeni immigrants took the normal new-comer jobs of janitors, cab drivers, cleaning ladies, etc. Mokhtar could easily have resigned himself to such a life–or maybe a notch or two up the immigrant ladder. Instead of wasting time on a pro sports or celebrity dream, Mokhtar, when not out goofing around with friends, read anything he could get his hands on–even Plato’s Republic. You see, Mokhtar choose to succeed.
When he decided to go to Yemen and export coffee he did his homework with a vengeance. He sought out the best help and advisors, educated himself, took industry certification exams and more. When he landed in Yemen he was ready except for…. [No Spoilers!] But when his ship comes in….well, you’ll have to read the book to find out!
I truly hope Dave Eggers will produce a Young Person’s version of this book. Parents may not be pleased that Mokhtar put college aside to pursue his dream, but the education he gave himself, plus the industry certifications he earned, were worth as much or more, to the success of his dream. I loved this book–and I don’t even like coffee. Go figure!
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
Here is the New York Times review link.
Here is an interview from PBS’ News Hour