A few years ago, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a native of San Francisco, found himself riding in a flatbed truck through the deserts of war-torn Yemen, with a loaded Colt 45 at his side and a suitcase full of precious coffee beans.
Bombs were exploding in the near distance. A civil war had erupted around Alkhanshali, and his hopes of surviving the ordeal — and catching a boat, plane, or anything, out of Yemen and back to the U.S. — were growing bleaker by the minute.
But he did survive. And those coffee beans he was hauling became the first of many batches that Alkhanshali’s company, Port of Mokha, would share with the world.
Now, Alkhanshali is sharing his story with the world, too. Author Dave Eggers has written a biography of sorts, called “The Monk of Mokha,” which details Alkhanshali’s remarkable journey from trouble-making California youth to danger-dodging master of the coffee industry.
On Feb. 12, Alkhanshali and Eggers (whose other works include “The Circle,” “A Hologram for the King,” and “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) will be at the Philadelphia Free Library to discuss “The Monk of Mokha,” which was released in January.
Eggers’ book tells the full story of Alkhanshali, who grew up the son of Yemeni immigrants in San Francisco’s impoverished Tenderloin District and spent years working first as a salesman (shoes, clothes, and cars) and then as a doorman at an upscale apartment complex.
Searching for purpose in his life, Alkhanshali became fascinated (some might say obsessed) by coffee. He was particularly interested in Yemen’s former status in the global coffee industry. Once the birthplace of the coffee trade, by 2015, Yemen’s port city of Mocha had not exported coffee beans in close to 80 years. Alkhanshali resolved to change that.
Knowing next to nothing about growing, roasting, selling, shipping, or identifying specialty coffee, Alkhanshali nevertheless decided to resurrect Yemen’s long-lost industry.
It was an impossible mission for a California doorman with no industry contacts, but he committed to it — and ended up risking his life for it. He befriended coffee roasters and traders, learned how to appraise specialty coffee, and spent years flying to Yemen to teach farming communities how to produce high-quality coffee fruit.
But, in doing so, Alkhanshali eventually found himself trapped in the middle of a civil war instigated by a growing faction of Yemeni rebels called the Houthis.
In 2015, after a fleeing Yemen’s warzone via motorboat — his suitcase full of specialty coffee beans close at hand — NPR reported Alkhanshali’s story under the headline, “Trapped in Yemen’s ‘Armageddon,’ An American Made a Dangerous Escape.”
That’s when author Dave Eggers called and asked to hear the whole story.
Eggers “met with me just a few weeks after I got back,” Alkhanshali said over the phone during late January. “I was still trying to process all that happened to me.” In some ways, that processing happened in conversation with Eggers.
The two recorded hundreds of hours of conversations — about coffee; about Alkhanshali’s meandering youth and growing up the son of Yemeni immigrants; and about the terror he’d witnessed first-hand in Yemen.
“It was a very intimate road trip through my personal life,” Alkhanshali said. “Your story is the most personal thing you own, and I don’t think I could have [made this book] with someone else. Because Dave is such a caring and loving person, and a good friend of mine.
“It made it easy, because you have to be OK with being vulnerable about all those memories. Some of them are funny and hilarious, but some of them use a lot of tissue paper.”
Alkhanshali acknowledged that “The Monk of Mokha” is being released during an interesting political moment. At a time when Yemen remains on President Trump’s list of “banned” countries, Alkhanshali feels proud to share an uplifting story centered on “people who come from different worlds.” In a way, he said, “Mokha” is about the American Dream.
“My story — I don’t think it could have happened anywhere else,” he said, referring to himself as “this kid from the Tenderloin in a one-bedroom apartment who had a dream.”
“We hear a lot about the American Dream, but, for millennials, it’s like a faraway thing that they think is long gone, [something] that our parents experienced,” he added. “I was able to realize that dream and reinvent myself.”
But Alkhanshali was also interested in reinventing Yemen. One of the reasons he founded his coffee company, Port of Mokha, in the first place was to remind people that there’s more to Yemen than drone strikes and violent conflicts. For one thing, there’s coffee: world-renowned, $16-dollars-a-cup, gourmet coffee.
“When I first started, I wanted people to see Yemen as something other than the headlines,” Alkhanshali said. “And I thought coffee was an incredible way to build bridges, not walls.
“What would connect a farmer from the mountains of Yemen with a hipster in Bushwick? Or Tokyo? Or Paris? Coffee is an incredible thing. It goes through cultures and borders and markets to find its way to your hand. It’s an incredible journey.”
“I hope different people can find themselves in this book,” he added. “And I hope that after you read this book, you do have an appreciation of coffee and a better understanding of Yemen and that part of our world.”
“The Monk of Mokha,” written by Dave Eggers and published by Penguin Random House, is now available anywhere books are sold. A copy of the book is included with the ticket price at the Feb. 12 Free Library event.