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A Model Businessman

What Dave Eggers misses in his story of a Yemeni-American man’s rise

Illustration by Katherine Lam

If I say that Dave Eggers’s new book, The Monk of Mokha, is about coffee or about a young man’s coming of age or about winning material success, I say so because it isn’t entirely clear what this book is about, just as it is hard to make out what kind of book one is reading. Is it narrative nonfiction, immersion journalism, business how-to, the book version of a TED talk, or just a sort of add-on book, one meant to visually grace the backdrop of some upscale, hipster retail outlet—maybe even a high-end coffee shop?

THE MONK OF MOKHA by Dave Eggers
Knopf, 352 pp., $28.95

The book follows Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a young man from a family of Yemeni immigrants in California who decides, in 2013, without much in the way of capital or formal education, to go on an adventurous quest to import coffee from Yemen. At the time, Mokhtar is working as a doorman at the Infinity, a plush residential building overlooking San Francisco Bay. Before this, he has been a salesman at a Banana Republic store and at a Honda dealership, enrolled at a community college, and dropped out from it because he doesn’t have enough money. Then, in a building across from the Infinity that dates back to the late 1800s and that once housed one of the oldest coffee import businesses in the United States, he discovers the connection between coffee and Yemen.

“According to legend, it was in Mokha, a port city on the Yemeni coast, that the bean was first brewed,” Eggers writes as this discovery ensues, going on at some length to offer a potted history of coffee. Eventually, of course, Mokhtar decides to try his hand at importing coffee from Yemen, even though the trade in coffee “was all but finished,” and goes on to meet with various mentor figures and potential business partners. It is only halfway through the book, when Mokhtar begins traveling around Yemen to meet coffee farmers, figuring out which beans he wants to export and how to process and transport them, that the narrative seems to come alive. Characters appear more boldly tinged than earlier in the book, the landscape more sharply etched.

Some of this has to do with the sheer turmoil Mokhtar encounters in his travels through Yemen. In 2015, during a buying trip, he gets caught in the opening clashes of Yemen’s civil war. By the time he is fleeing for California, there are no more flights, the roads are controlled by Houthi rebels from the north, and the Saudi Arabian air force is bombing rebels and civilians alike. In these scenes, in spite of the coffee beans Mokhtar has rather painstakingly collected, Yemen seems to push itself out of the pages with a certain determination, asserting itself as a place and a people that cannot be reduced either to a single commodity or to a mere backdrop for some kind of American finding-of-the-self project.

There is, for instance, Sadeq, whom Mokhtar meets on his pell-mell journey to catch a Greek freighter leaving from the port of Aden. A mysterious man who is described as having “a tangle of wild black hair” and wearing “a traditional outfit,” and whom people constantly suspect of being a Houthi agent, Sadeq is intriguing, and his motivations—in sharp contrast to Mokhtar’s—are hard to pin down. Similar questions arise about almost everyone else Mokhtar encounters during this escape, from various members of militias resisting Houthi rebels—men in tank tops and tracksuits who wave guns with abandon—to crazed prisoners who have soiled themselves in crammed, makeshift cells. They all seem to be parts of an incredibly complex story that raises new questions with each turn. Why are the Saudis, allies of the United States, allowed to bomb another country with impunity? What does the upheaval in Yemen have to do with the Western geopolitics of modern times, including the post–September 11 invasion of Iraq?

But as Eggers returns with Mokhtar to California, it becomes clear that these complexities do not interest him—that his interest in Yemen does not go beyond what Chinua Achebe, in his withering comment on Joseph Conrad, called the Eurocentric tendency to reduce Africans to “the role of props” for the self-involved drama of the Western mind. What seems to concern Eggers more than the realities of war or famine is, he writes, “the export of coffee to international specialty roasters” and the material rewards it promises. In a series of chapters that follow the buying trip, we are given a close-up view of Mokhtar’s triumph as he rents an apartment in the Infinity, the very building where he once worked as a doorman. Once there, he can, like some twenty-first-century version of Bud Fox in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, stand and see his ship finally coming in—among its stacked containers the one holding his carefully selected, fair trade coffee beans.

This is meant to be the moment in the book: climactic, epiphanic, cathartic. And yet, oddly enough, because the MSC Luciana is sailing in earlier than anticipated, the only person available to enjoy the sight with Mokhtar is “the guy writing a book about all this.” And so, just this once in the book, author, subject, and commodity come together, and in a manner far more revealing than it’s intended to be: 

The door buzzed. The writer was there, and we stood there, panting, laughing at this, the fact that this was really happening. But there was no nonalcoholic champagne or cider. There were no close friends, no family. It was just the two of us, and the ship was so close.

There is the tweeness of “the writer,” the self-conscious touch of “nonalcoholic” that shows us the writer clueing the reader in to Mokhtar’s status as an observant Muslim. There is the fact of no friends or family being present, and although ostensibly caused by the unpredictability of shipping, this seems entirely fitting in a book that finds it hard to accommodate friends, family, or any kind of larger context for Mokhtar’s experience. Is it any surprise that the epiphany turns out to feel curiously hollow? Even when viewed from high up in a luxury tower, even after he has made it from doorman to entrepreneur, the promise of homecoming and America and capitalism is a lonely business, “so close,” but always falling just short of fulfillment.

Eggers started to reconstruct Mokhtar’s story in 2015, just after Mokhtar’s dramatic return to California from Yemen made him famous on television news. In the introductory note that precedes the narrative proper, Eggers asserts that he “conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with Mokhtar over the course of almost three years.” The prologue also makes it apparent that Eggers retraced parts of Mokhtar’s journey with him, visiting Yemen as well as nearby Ethiopia and Djibouti. All of this adds up to a considerable amount of research and labor, but its significance lies in how you parse it.

It reveals, to begin with, a characteristic strength of nonfiction writing as practiced in the West and the sheer effort involved in teasing out the details that build a character in a particular time and place. One sees this, for instance, when Eggers writes of Mokhtar’s childhood home in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco:

There was no room in the apartment for bookshelves, but on a shelf in the tiny kitchen pantry, below the canned goods and above the shelf that held the pasta and Sazón Goya seasoning, Mokhtar had carved out a home for the books he’d found.

The close-up of the narrative lens on the assortment of objects, clicking into specifics with the Sazón Goya seasoning and bringing along an association of immigrant neighborhoods and grocery stores, is possible only because of those hundreds of hours of interviews Eggers has put in.

But as similar details proliferate through the book, they also begin to reveal the limitations of the research being conducted. Eggers tends to rely too heavily on the visual—sometimes, the shockingly graphic (“Mokhtar’s earliest memory of San Francisco was of a man defecating on a Mercedes”)—and on factoids that give the story a generic feel. (“Coffee had first come to Europe in 1615,” he writes, “when it was exported from Mokha to Venice and used for medicinal purposes.”) The description is curiously sterile, hardly evoking smell, sound, taste, or indeed complexity of any sort, even though so much in Mokhtar’s work depends on the taste, texture, and temperature of coffee—Mokhtar’s ability to register such characteristics determines his attempts to become “the first Q grader for arabica coffee who’s an actual Arab.”

That sterility, bordering on superficiality, reveals something else about the research-heavy, capital-intensive approach of hundreds of hours of interviews and travel to Yemen, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Eggers ends up seeing only what he wants to see and showing only what he wants to show. Those choices have far less to do with Mokhtar or coffee or Yemen than with Eggers’s own approach to his story—his attempt to show a world of daring and enterprise, in which Americans rise from rags to riches through sheer chutzpah.

This includes, along with the kind of preferred details listed above, a particular mode of constructing the narrative. Short chapters follow one another, often fronted by what seems to be an ironic headline. Chapter 11 is titled “The Plan, Part I,” while Chapter 16 is called “The Plan, Part II.” Both include copious extracts from Mokhtar’s business plans, complete with bullet points and boilerplate language: “Vision: To empower Yemeni coffee farmers with the knowledge and tools to bring positive changes in the quality of their coffee and life.” It isn’t entirely clear what purpose the excerpts serve. If the intention is to show Mokhtar as an innocent, this is a long-winded way of making the point.

This is exacerbated by the lack of affect in almost everything Mokhtar and the other characters think or say or do, as expressed through short sentences that go subject-verb-object no matter who or what is being depicted. An early chapter that explores Mokhtar’s brief relationship with a Palestinian-American begins: “Miriam gave things to Mokhtar. Usually books. She gave him Das Kapital. She gave him Noam Chomsky. She fed his mind. She fueled his aspirations.” When Mokhtar finds out that MSC Luciana is arriving early, Eggers writes, “He called his mom and got her voicemail. His dad was driving his bus. He called Miriam, who was down on the peninsula, an hour away.”

If there is any emotion at all, it is in the form of irony, and that operates not through the characters but in a kind of extratextual field that extends from writer to reader. Therefore, Chapter 8, which is titled “Richgrove Agonistes,” begins, “Bakersfield is not high on the list of places a young man might go to begin his hero’s journey.” Mokhtar does not seem to be in on the joke at all, with the play of words on Milton and Joseph Campbell. It’s enough to make one want Miriam to show up and throw volumes of Marx and Chomsky at the writer.

Eggers hasn’t always written this way. When he began producing a certain kind of book, one that blurred the line between fiction and nonfiction, as well as, more problematically, showcasing a well-meaning, wealthy, white American male writer narrating the life experiences of marginal characters, often people of color, his language functioned in a somewhat different manner. His first two books—the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001) and the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity (2003)—were exuberant affairs with a certain David Foster Wallace–ish formal playfulness, footnotes and columns colliding with fragments and long, paratactic sentences.

Published in 2006, What is the What was classified as a novel and yet was also the “autobiography” of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee of the Darfur conflict (and now a minister in South Sudan). Eggers’s first foray into a global subject matter, it nevertheless maintained some continuity of style with the earlier books. Narrated in the first person, it was sometimes chatty, sometimes uber-dignified, but always voicey in a manner that was recognizable in relation to Eggers’s initial works.

The shift in style appears to have begun with Zeitoun (2009), which followed the trajectory of a New Orleans couple in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was in Eggers’s depiction of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American, and his wife, Kathy, an American convert to Islam, that the short sentences and the flat, affectless register became the preferred style: “Zeitoun got out of the canoe and walked up to the front door. The house would be fine. But he saw no sign of the cat.” It is as if Zeitoun, which is how Eggers refers to Abdulrahman, and Mokhtar have been processed through the same writing machine.

Style, of course, is an aesthetic choice. When one sees Eggers choosing this particular way of representation, for Zeitoun and for Mokhtar, it isn’t hard to read into it narrative exhaustion of the sort that has become common among an affluent, professionalized writer class in North America. But style, and aesthetic choice, is also an expression of worldview, of politics, and there is a certain kind of writerly imperialism in extending this late-hipster mode, alternating between lack of affect and irony, to characters who have had life trajectories very different from Eggers’s. In The Monk of Mokha—a title that is perhaps meant to be ironic but comes across as patently ridiculous—the style lays bare the contradiction between the supposed focus on an individual and the mannered expression that barely allows that individual to rise above a type.

The politics that allows this is, of course, a well-meaning one. Eggers is a liberal, committed to what he sees as doing the right thing, and this is evident both in his oeuvre as a writer and the impressive work he has done as the publisher of McSweeney’s and The Believer and as the founder of educational nonprofits like 826 National and ScholarMatch. In the prologue, in a style quite different from what drives the narrative proper, he asserts that Mokhtar’s story is “chiefly about the American Dream.” Cranking up the rhetoric, in a way clearly meant to challenge the demonization of Muslims and people of color by the current U.S. administration, Eggers asserts that Americans are: 

a blended people united not by stasis and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise on a human scale, by the inherent rightness of pressing forward, always forward, driven by courage unfettered and unyielding.

This well-meaning American exceptionalism, with its cutesy recycling of a phrase (“irrational exuberance”) meant as a critique of the market by, of all people, Alan Greenspan, strikes me as even more depressing than the barbaric version of American exceptionalism put forth on a regular basis by Donald Trump. Eggers’s exhortation ignores everything about the history of the United States, including its relation to race, immigration, and global enterprise and the fact that not all the blending in the world can cover over fault lines that run so deep and wide. Not even when accompanied by a cup of Mokha coffee that, at $16 a cup, exceeds the minimum wage being unsuccessfully demanded by labor movements in the United States.

The politics of meaning well, however, never manages to look beyond its own naïveté. Here and in his other books, Eggers fixes on the same tropes that the American right is obsessed with, but with the intention of showing these characteristics not to be malevolent traits. This must explain what comes across as his Muslim fetish, with his constant references to tropes of an obvious kind, including the hijab, nonalcoholic drinks, praying, and references to Allah. In Zeitoun, “He got out of his bed and looked for his Qur’an. There was a passage he’d been thinking about, al-Haqqah, ‘The Reality.’” Mokhtar, deciding whether to escape by ship, “prayed the Istikhara, a prayer to God to provide answers.”

The intention here is to perform a kind of diversity training, clearly, but who is it meant for? Among the questions that Eggers doesn’t ask is how and why Mokhtar, whose family is well-to-do and of fairly elite status in Yemen, is reduced, for a long while, to being a college dropout and a nobody in the United States. Nor does he ask why his readers need Mokhtar to succeed as an entrepreneur–backed now, among others, by the eerily libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel, another exemplar of the immigrant American dream–in order for his humanity to be of significance.

These are questions, it seems, that are utterly irrelevant to what is being depicted. And they may well be irrelevant. Mokhtar, in spite of his rise from rags to riches, is not really character, protagonist, or subject in Eggers’s book. He is the reassurance that the American dream is alive. He is a familiar figure: the exotic, blended other as a blank, featureless mirror. He is what liberal, white, wealthy America stares into in order to be reassured of its own humanity, of its irrational exuberance, its rightful exceptionalism, and the inherent virtue of its pressing forward, unfettered, unyielding.