A bright blue San Francisco Public Library Bookmobile made its way around the city last weekend. It carried hundreds of books, a dedicated librarian and Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the young, affable subject of author Dave Eggers’ latest book, “The Monk of Mokha.”
The Bookmobile stopped at Book Passage’s Ferry Building branch long enough for Eggers and Alkhanshali to take part in a coffee sampling and discussion, in addition to stops at other San Francisco booksellers. The pair, who describe themselves as “brothers” more than colleagues or even friends, ground and brewed Yemeni coffee beans for the standing-room-only crowd. After all, it was coffee that brought them together.
Here’s the backstory: Mokhtar Alkhanshali was raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood by Yemeni parents. The close-knit Muslim family lived in a small apartment packed with siblings and surrounded by immigrants from all over the globe. As a child, Alkhanshali was obsessed with books – namely the Harry Potter series – and dreamed that someday the book’s lovable Hagrid character would swoop in on his magic motorcycle and whisk Alkhanshali away.
Alkhanshali eventually did get a different sort of adventure. “The Monk of Mokha” chronicles his quest to import Yemeni coffee beans to the United States, including multiple trips to war-torn Yemen, where Alkhanshali worked with farmers to develop the cultivation of coffee cherries (which hold the beans.) Quality coffee-making and fair-trade practices, as readers of “The Monk of Mokha” will learn, is incredibly labor-intensive, especially in a country like Yemen, where the fields are occasionally bombed to oblivion.
This is why a cup of coffee from Alkhanshali’s beans retails for $16. It is also, as attendees of Eggers and Alkhanshali’s San Francisco Bookmobile tour discovered, delicious.
“This is a very important place for coffee, right here,” Alkhanshali said, motioning around the Ferry Building. He noted that Hills Bros. Coffee, just up the Embarcadero, has a statue of a Yemeni man sipping coffee; the Infinity apartment building where Alkhanshali worked as a doorman (or “lobby ambassador”) loomed in the distance; and Blue Bottle Coffee in the Ferry Building was the first to buy his beans.
Eggers and Alkhanshali met when Alkhanshali was hired to consult on an HBO pilot that Eggers was developing. The show, which didn’t come to fruition, followed the life and work of a fictional young Muslim San Francisco police officer. Through their work on the ill-fated pilot, Eggers and Alkhanshali became friends, and Eggers eventually heard about Alkhanshali’s quest to import his prized coffee beans from Yemen.
Never one to miss an opportunity to tell a good story, Eggers spent three years detailing Alkhanshali’s saga. The pair even went up to the roof of The Infinity apartment complex to watch the container ship carrying Alkhanshali’s beans as it finally arrived into the Port of Oakland in February of 2016.
“I would never have thought in my life that I would be here talking to you,” Alkhanshali said as he handed Eggers some coffee beans to grind at Book Passage. “So I am very grateful.”
Equator Coffee’s Devorah Freudiger served tiny cups of the coveted brew to guests as Eggers connected Alkhanshali’s story to the present-day political landscape. Yemen is one of the Muslim-majority countries included in President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. Had that policy been in place when Alkhanshali’s parents were younger, Mokhtar and his coffee would not be here, nor would Yemeni farmers have the opportunity to receive fair wages from importers like Alkhanshali for their prized coffee beans.
“No one dreams the American dream harder than immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants,” Eggers said.
As for the $16 cups of Alkhanshali’s Port of Mohka coffee, they can be purchased at Blue Bottle and Equator coffee shops. Beans are available for sale online.
“Coffee nerds,” Freudiger gushed, “are going crazy for it.”
“The Monk of Mokha” by Dave Eggers is available at Book Passage.