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‘Monk of Mokha’ tells the story of your culture-crossing, life-changing cup of coffee

Do you know where your coffee comes from? Dave Eggers' latest book is "The Monk of Mokha," the story of Mohktar Alkhanshali's journey to his family's war-torn homeland of Yemen, and the steps he took along the way to becoming a successful coffee importer. Eggers and Alkhanshali sit down with Jeffrey Brown for a conversation about the history of a staple of our daily lives and the fate of Yemen.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now- It's a story of adventure, war, and the search for the perfect cup of coffee.

    Jeffrey Brown sat down with author Dave Eggers to talk about "The Monk of Mokha," the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It begins with a statue in San Francisco of a man in a turban drinking from a cup, an image many of us know as the logo for Hills Bros. Coffee.

    For Mokhtar Alkhanshali, it marked the beginning of quite a journey, from wayward San Francisco youth, to his family homeland of Yemen caught up in a civil war, to successful coffee importer and businessman, with many stops along the way.

    His story is told in the new book "The Monk of Mokha" by author Dave Eggers. And he and Mokhtar Alkhanshali join us now.

    Welcome to both of you.

  • Dave Eggers:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You know, it's interesting to take a daily commodity, coffee, something that we're all very familiar with, and sort of de-familiarize it.

    You're explaining in this book where it comes from, how it's made, the way it's spread throughout the world.

    You enjoy that, I can see, writing, about it.

  • Dave Eggers:

    Well, I like to start from scratch.

    I had my first cup of coffee when I was 35. I had no interest in its history, or I didn't know anything about it. I don't know where it came from. I didn't know it was a fruit until three years ago.

  • Jeffrey Brown:


  • Dave Eggers:

    So I was able to sort of follow Mokhtar's discovery of coffee, the history of it, which is really unbelievable and so many fantastical stories of adventure and daring-do and thievery.

    And then it has a very dark history, too, involving a lot of slavery, and the people that pick and grow coffee have been exploited for centuries. But the recent history of it has such potential to change lives in countries like Yemen by empowering the farmers, giving them more control over their crop, and bring coffee to like, the same state that we take — we have for wine.

    You know, varietals matter. The farmers matter, the soil matters. And if we give credit to it and really care about where it comes from, we can uplift these farmers who create this incredible beverage.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The farmers in this story are in Yemen. And you're going back to a family homeland, right, but one in great turmoil.

    Now, Americans typically see — I mean, on this news program, we talk about Yemen. It's always about terror, war. What image did you want to present?

  • Mokhtar Alkhanshali:

    One of my goals in life was to try to teach people and educate them about what Yemen is.

    And you're right. Most people, when asked about Yemen, all they can — all they know is what they see in the news headlines. And those are oftentimes very negative things.

    But it's really a wonderful and beautiful country with such a rich history and heritage. And it's the reason why we have coffee. There is a city in Yemen called Mokha, the first port for coffee. And coffee fueled Europe's enlightenment. In coffee houses in Vienna and Paris and London, people had incredible intellectual thoughts.

    And now coffee is such a huge thing. And I always tell people that oil powers factories and machines, and coffee powers humans and dreams.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you did go through quite a bit in your experience in Yemen, including civil war, getting captured by some of the participants there?

  • Mokhtar Alkhanshali:

    I did.

    Yemen is going through a really horrific civil war that has been going on for over three years now. And it's the single worst humanitarian crisis in the world. And everything that we consume comes from somewhere. And Yemen's reality is a very difficult political reality.

    And I did have to go through quite a bit to do that journey. And I'm very thankful for where I am today.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is not, for you, the first time you have written about a particularly American story, but through a foreign lens, right, or with another land kind of looking in.

    Is there a — is there a kind of political mission to this and other stories?

  • Dave Eggers:

    Well, I am interested in the American dream.

    And I think it's always alive and it's always under threat. And I think that it's best illustrated through the eyes of one person who embodies it and who lives it. I think immigrants dream the American dream a lot harder, a lot better than anybody else.

    The sons of daughters of immigrants dream it better and harder than anybody else and embody it perfectly. So, I'm interested in those stories.

    And I'm also interested in when we're our best as a nation, when we embrace people from around the world, we take them in, we care for them, we lift them up. And I'm interested in times when we fall short.

    And in the case of thousands of Yemeni Americans that were left to their own devices when the civil war began, the U.S. provided no help getting any of these Americans out of the country. I think we could have done a lot better.

    I think we owe a responsibility to take care of our own people in times of turmoil when they're stuck abroad. And I think that we should learn something from that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Where are you now? Where's the — how's the coffee business, and what do you see coming from all this experience?

  • Mokhtar Alkhanshali:

    For me, I think coffee is an incredible thing that crosses borders and cultures and political hardships to find its way to our cup.

    And I hope that, when people look at coffee, they know that they have so much more power as consumers, that they have the power to uplift someone.

    In my case in Yemen, my work is one of the few ways that people get relief into Yemen and money to these farmers who need that support. And I believe that my work will outlast these bombs. And when this war does end, I hope we have laid a good foundation to continue doing this work and helping farmers and bridging this gap between these two worlds and how we think coffee is an incredible bridge for us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right. Well, that's a lot to take in with your morning coffee, but it's a wonderful story.

    Mokhtar Alkhanshali, Dave Eggers.

    The new book is "The Monk of Mokha."

    Thank you both very much.

  • Dave Eggers:

    Thank you.

  • Mokhtar Alkhanshali:

    Thank you so much for having us.

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