The Monk of Mokha: Literature Revives the American Dream

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

The novel and its theme

The Monk of Mokha, a novel first published in English in 2018, is written by Dave Eggers, an American writer, editor and publisher born in 1970. The book was first translated into Arabic by the Yemeni translator and poet Abdul Wahab al-Maqaleh and published by Dar Madrak Publishing in Riyadh in 2019.

While this book is considered a novel, the reader quickly realizes that it blends autobiography and what Georg Lukács refers to as “artistic creation and aesthetic experience”,[i] for it tells the story, in novel form, of how a real Yemeni-American character, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, became a successful entrepreneur, driven by his dream to succeed and change Yemen’s image. The book includes the author’s viewpoint, his relationship with the main character and his comments about America at the time, qualifying the book as a memoir. It is, then, a combination of a a novel and an autobiography. In this article, we discuss how this style adds layers of complexity to the author’s vision.

The book, at its core, reveals various stages of transformation imposed by the new world order, with all the tensions between east and west, as well as clashes between money and ethics, past and present. In addition, it looks at all those who have sought to redefine people’s identities and drag them into the melting pot of capitalism; it looks at the effort to change the stereotypical image of the self and the other, the excluded and the included; it looks at knowledge, work and faith, wealth and poverty; and it looks at the essence of the culture of planning and vulgar materialism.

The story of the monk of Mokha

The book speaks of the true struggle of a young Yemeni-American, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who managed to rise from the worst and poorest neighborhood in Tenderloin, California, and achieve self-made success and fortune by trading Yemeni coffee. He was able to elevate the value and price of Yemeni coffee to international heights. But his accomplishments would not have been possible without his ambition and thirst for adventure, which nearly got him killed on more than one occasion.

Difficult times led him to work as a valet at a small car park, then as a salesman at a showroom, then as a shoes and clothes salesman, then a grocer, and then he worked at a gas station, and finally as a doorman in a large building that was adjacent to a statue of a man with Yemeni and Ethiopian features drinking coffee.

This statue was the spark that ignited Alkhanshali’s dream, which he sacrificed his university education for as he dedicated all his time to learning about the coffee trade. He apprenticed in cafes and institutes to master the skill of tasting and vetting coffee. He is now a renowned coffee sommelier, knowledgeable in the history of coffee making, its trade, its types and genres, varieties and the many methods of making coffee and roasting the beans. He became knowledgeable in the ways of cultivating the coffee bean and in the various methods of picking it, drying it, separating the center from the peel, and distinguishing the different layers of the core. He also became familiar with what enhances the quality of the coffee bean and what reduces it.

Artwork by Amani Bahshwan

However, Mokhtar was not satisfied with just this, so he sought to learn the ways of trading in coffee beans, its prices and the key companies that export and sell it. He also got to know the top American and international cafés that have mastered coffee making and expanded the range of its flavors. All this became possible through his attendance of various international seminars, conferences and festivals that focused on coffee production and trade.

After Mokhtar arrived in Yemen in 2015, he set out to collect as many samples of coffee as he could from the different regions of Yemen famous for their coffee farming. He took them back to America to test them and familiarize himself with their qualities. With these results, he returned to Yemen to export tons of high-quality coffee beans, making him a huge profit and restoring to Yemen its glory and reputation in coffee production and export.

He succeeded and accomplished his dream. But along with his ambition came many great risks and dangers that he encountered in Sana’a, Aden, Yarim, Mocha, Djibouti, Ethiopia and American airports. The high stakes made him believe in the necessity of bringing peace to his country, Yemen, because he experienced, along with other Yemenis, the woes of the civil war between the Houthi insurgents, the Yemeni government and other political, sectarian and tribal forces incited by regional and international intervention. This compelled him to make a plea to all Yemenis through his shirt that read, “MAKE COFFEE NOT WAR” (p. xiii), and to combine his practical business dream with his ethical duty to his country Yemen. He hoped one day to change Yemen’s image in the minds of Americans and other westerners through his work, and through everything he will accomplish in the future and that others will accomplish through him.

The wine of Islam

The title The Monk of Mokha implies a Christian vision through its use of the word ‘monk’. And it seems that Alkhanshali had understood that as he suggested changing the title to ‘The Sheikh of Mokha’; however, the translator insisted on keeping ‘monk’ because it carries semantic dimensions that the author intentionally included. What did the author hope to imply through his use of the word?

If monk is used to refer to someone who isolates himself from people and dedicates his life to worshiping God, then this fits the Christian concept well. It then also includes the ritual of wine drinking that was present during Christ’s Last Supper, which later came to represent the blood of Christ. In Islam, the word could be associated with Sufism. A devoted Sufi worshipper, Ali bin Omar al-Shadhili, who lived in the city of Mocha, dedicated himself to worshiping God and performing rituals using ‘coffee grinds’ that he would brew and consume in a fashion similar to modern coffee brewing methods. It is as though he replaced the Christian wine drinking ritual with coffee drinking, which the author suggested naming ‘the wine of Islam’ to mirror the Christian vision of the ritual. So we know that al-Shadhili was the first to invent a method for brewing coffee grinds; and as he is the only Sufi to be referred to as ‘the monk of Mokha’, does the title of the book refer to him?

It is clear that Eggers did not actually mean to refer to al-Shadhili, but he sought to negate these references in order to then apply the term to the protagonist who dedicated himself entirely to the service of Yemeni coffee and to elevating it to high international standards of quality and price that would compete with other coffees in the global markets. He also made use of the history of the city and port of Mocha, considered a key location for exporting Yemeni coffee to distant world markets. And because Mocha is linked to coffee, the two terms have become synonymous with each other.

And as such the word ‘monk’ was transferred, with its connotations of isolation and dedication to the worship of God, from the Christian religion to Sufism, and then to a dedication and fidelity to a practice as it is conceived within capitalist concepts, which attaches value to production.

Artwork by Amani Bahshwan

Contrasting perspectives: Mokhtar’s dream and the American capitalist dream

The author asserts in the prologue that he was careful to transmit to the reader Mokhtar’s vision of the world, which contradicts his own (p. xiv). And to reinforce this perception, the author confirms on the page titled ‘A Note About This Book’ that his role was limited to merely corroborating Mokhtar’s memories, dates and historical records, and to changing some names and translating dialogue as accurately as possible into English with Mokhtar’s help. But is that enough to convince us that we are presented with Mokhtar’s view of the world and not that of the author/narrator?

The author confirms Mokhtar’s goal of marrying his personal and practical business ambitions to his ethical obligation to Yemen. He tells us that, during one of their meetings, Mokhtar “reiterated that he was serious about reviving Yemeni coffee and bringing it to the world’s specialty coffee stage, and creating cross-national cooperation, introducing a different idea of Yemen to the world, a Yemen apart from drones and al-Qaeda” (p. 103).

If we accept that this was Mokhtar’s goal, then we find that the author/narrator is revealing his own goal by writing Mokhtar’s story and presenting it to the American reader as a vision that serves America the country, the nation, the people, the individual and the global humanitarian system, and a vision that reveals a social, political, economic and identity crisis that would doom America if it is not addressed before it is too late. He also reveals a crisis that the American Dream[ii] is going through that emphasizes the necessity of reviving the dream, renewing it and promoting it in a contemporary image, as the old one has lost its glow between yesterday’s attractiveness and today’s lies.

Such advocacy can have an impact through the success stories of recent immigrants to America, or of Americans with dual citizenship who carve their path to success through financial investments, bridging the gap between their native country and America, to which they also feel they belong. This path means the realization of the American Dream outside America, while before it was only possible inside it or by immigrating to it.

Mokhtar’s story, from the perspective of the author/narrator is “chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat.… It’s also about the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, a valley of desperation in a city of towering wealth, about the families that live there and struggle to live there safely and with dignity. It’s about the strange preponderance of Yemenis in the liquor-store trade of California, and the unexpected history of Yemenis in the Central Valley.… And how direct trade can change the lives of farmers, giving them agency and standing. And about how Americans like Mokhtar Alkhanshali—U.S. citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds, between nations that produce and those that consume. And how these bridgemakers exquisitely and bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome. And how when we forget… we forget ourselves—a blended people united not by statis and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise on a human scale, by the inherent rightness of pressing forward” (pp. xiv-xv).

These different goals, despite their apparent intersection, appear to be two conflicting visions. We are not presented with Mokhtar’s vision only, as the author/narrator claims, but, upon delving deeper into the text, we find that the author’s vision is what directs this work as a whole.

We sense, through some of what was already discussed, a victory for the capitalist values behind the philosophy of duty and utilitarianism—the sacred pragmatism of the culture of planning, labor and benefit. We find in the text and in some of the author’s comments, descriptions and probing of the protagonist’s subconscious, a direction towards this vision that carries the novel on an educational path, a seductive, promotional and motivational function, as if it were a literary guide to success.

Artwork by Amani Bahshwan

The chapter’s flow with the drive to work and make money, to deal with it by donating it, loaning it and borrowing it; the drive to create plans and charts, and acquire the mental, verbal and instinctual skills to buy and sell and to know one’s customers well and recover their investments; the drive to gather information and develop experience and knowledge; and the drive to learn new lessons and adhere to work ethics and moral practice and behavior. This was done to teach the reader new material values that contribute to increasing profit and creating a better life, as well as to teach the reader how to become—not only dream to be—a successful entrepreneur.

As a result, we find the protagonist speaking of coffee as mere “fuel for much of the world’s productivity, and a seventy-billion-dollar global commodity” (p. xi). He introduces us to his material relationship with his friend Maryam who bought him a practical satchel, thinking the object would drive his dream (p. 3), and with the satchel, cash, laptop and suit, “he felt like a man of action and purpose.” (p. 5) He tells us of his grandfather Hamood’s disappointment that he did not grow up to be an Imam or an attorney, for Mokhtar “began instead to see himself in Hamood’s mold, as a man of enterprise. A man who liked to move” (p. 36). The narrator also tells us of Mokhtar’s coming to terms with the need to break the culture of his ancestors that would not permit him to work as a doorman. Mokhtar’s need for money not only made him accept this reality but also pushed him to become the kind of charming doorman who would even say “hello” to the residents’ dogs (p. 11). We also find his friend Ghassan making light of Mokhtar’s story of the real monk of Mokha as he directs him towards business culture and discipline: “Forget it. Forget the monks… No monks. Focus on coffee. Focus on the business. Come to think of it, you have to make a choice, are you a businessman or are you an activist? For now, at least, you have to pick one” (p. 94).

And in terms of making plans, drawing charts and learning skills, it is sufficient to refer to chapters with titles such as ‘The Plan’, ‘The Apprentices’ and ‘The Basics’. We find references to a plan that Mokhtar must follow to the letter, that his parents wanted to know whether he had a plan in place since he quit his job, and he refers to his friends who helped him update and rewrite his plan every day for months, “explaining not just the history of Yemeni coffee but his role in resurrecting it. He started with a SWOT chart” (p. 97).

A material vision vs. a vision of faith and humanity

Perhaps directing the novel through the author/narrator’s vision and having it follow the requirements of his culture, and the demands of the market and the American reader, confirms to us, through Mokhtar’s vision of faith and humanity, its contradiction with the progressive vision in the country. For, the author/narrator reveals to us in the prologue, Mokhtar has a vision of a compassionate humanity charged with altruism and compassion towards the people of his homeland, away from the calculations of profit and loss and the vulgarity of gain: “The only time he slows down is when he describes the worry he caused his friends and family when he was trapped in Yemen. His large eyes well up and he pauses, staring at the photos on his phone for a moment before he can compose himself and continue” (p. xi).

As for the religious side of Mokhtar that contradicts the side of himself that abides by capitalist plans to master the skills that the market demands, it is revealed during his interview with Iqbal Abid during a ceremony held in Kuwait to honor his accomplishments: “When I look back, I find God’s wisdom… that it was my trust and confidence in God that led me here today… man’s passion and recklessness in seeking an adventure that he knows nothing of gives him a kind of appreciation of the self and a belief in God for what was already planned for him… I didn’t have a well thought out and clear plan, but I believed in myself… since my journey began, God has facilitated my path… Man must believe in something, for faith is what leads people places. Trust in the God Almighty and faith that I will find an outlet that would take me out… I could not find strength comparable to that of faith. And so, I find myself renewing my faith in confidence and trust in God. I always believed that God would not abandon me, and God who created me would not let me down, and God whom I relied on will deliver me.”

Comparing Mokhtar’s speech in the novel to his speech in the interview leaves no room for doubt that we are in front of two languages, two voices and two visions, different if not contradictory. And this confirms that the narrator/author did tell us the true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, but dressed it up, and told it through his own vision of the world. So the vision in the book is not purely that of Mokhtar, despite the author’s emphasis that he merely conveyed to the reader Mokhtar’s vision as it is. This was a persuasive technique used by the author to conceal his technical interventions in the book, thus enabling him to promote his own ideological agenda.

[i] Lukacs, Georg. The Theory of the Novel. 1st ed., The MIT Press, 1974.

[ii] The ‘American Dream’ is a term that refers to the attraction of workers from outside America into the country for the purpose of attaining their Dream along with security, freedom, equality, justice, and wealth through quick profit in a short amount of time. For many, however, their hopes of attainting this Dream have turned into a horror that threatens America.

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Muhammad al-Kumaim

A writer, literary critic and academic. Al-Kumaim is a professor at the Faculty of Arts in Sana’a University. He received a Master’s degree in semiotics from the Arabic Language Department in the Faculty of Arts in Sana’a University in 2009 and a doctorate in discourse analysis from Mohammed V University in Rabat in 2013. Al-Kumaim has published a number of articles and studies in local and Arabic newspapers and journals. He has two books in print:Poetry and Hair: Body Semiotics in Andalusian Texts and The Discourse of Poetry Anthologies: An Approach to Transcripts in Andalusian Models. He is a member of the Yemeni Writers Union.

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