Saturday 20 October 2018

Global odyssey for a fair cup of hot java

Non fiction: The Monk of Mokha, Dave Eggers, Knopf, €14.99

Dave Eggers’s 'The Monk of Mokha' is a gripping story of a Yemeni-American man who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee
Dave Eggers’s 'The Monk of Mokha' is a gripping story of a Yemeni-American man who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee
The Monk of Mokha

JP O' Malley

The global coffee industry presently turns over $70bn a year. And yet, a cup of coffee in most western countries still costs an average of $2.

The laborious labour process that takes place from farm to cafe means a plethora of workers are being ripped off along the way.

There can often be up to 20 individuals working across a myriad of countries, putting their own special touch to that one delicious cup of hot java.

These workers include pickers, driers, sorters, baggers, transporters, roasters, packers, grinders and brewers. But what if one individual devised a business plan that could bypass this monopolised global coffee supply chain?

Creating instead, an ethically conscious high-end coffee market that would produce two things: coffee beans of an exceptionally high standard, and, fair pay for every individual on that global assembly line.

This is the basic premise of the American writer, editor and publisher, Dave Eggers's latest work of non-fiction, The Monk of Mokha.

It tells the story of how a specialised Yemeni brand of coffee, Port of Mokha, was made available for the first time at Blue Bottle coffee shops around the United States - in June 2016 - for a staggering $16 a cup.

The expensive price didn't put consumers off though. The coffee was soon selling across four continents; won several awards; and even sold out of stock, as demand exceeded supply across the world.But Eggers's narrative delineates a story about far more than mere economies of scale, clever branding techniques, or the craftsmanship of coffee making itself.

The book's hero is Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an ambitious young American in his early 20s. Mokhtar hails from the socially deprived Tenderloin neighbourhood in San Francisco: a cultural and economic wasteland in the heart of one of the most expensive cities on earth.

Mokhtar is one of seven children from a poor Yemeni family. In this immigrant community, employment is more often about low pay, long hours and a way to simply survive, than about prestige, self-worth, or intellectual fulfilment.

It appears Mokhtar is due to follow this standard path; to labour his entire life with little recognition for work: in an economic and social system where ubiquitous class and social divisions are the norm.

And then one day something mysterious happens: Mokhtar accidentally overhears a conversation about how Yemen is the birthplace of coffee.

The more research Mokhtar carries out, the more he discovers that almost no coffee in the world presently comes from Yemen: as exports struggle in a country that has long since slid into political chaos.

Mokhtar thus sets out on a journey to his ancestral homeland: to bring this specialised brand of coffee bean back to the United States.

First he rigorously studies the coffee industry in San Francisco.Then he travels to Yemen, where he meets the primary workers on the coffee plantations: promising them fair pay, free from exploitation and injustice.

However, just as Mokhtar's business interests appear to be expanding, the young coffee seller finds himself embroiled in a chaotic war-torn failed state.

He quickly discovers that Yemen is a land where suicide bombs are the norm; Islamic terrorism is rampant; airports casually close down, and foreign embassies pack up and leave on a whim.

Yemen subsequently becomes the target of an international coalition bombing campaign, led by Saudi Arabia, backed up by a host of other Sunni Muslim nations. The narrative concludes by documenting this dangerous homeward journey.

Technically speaking, Eggers's tome is a work of non fiction. But it can be read almost as a hybrid form between a philosophical essay in political economy and the traditional novel.

It has, after all, the same attributes as the latter form: a high literary style; a cast of characters; and an omniscient third person narrator.

This unusual form works well. Primarily because the author has clearly done his research here: the book is based on three years of interviews conducted with Mokhtar. Moreover, Eggers has done his homework on the politics of Islamic fundamentalism too.

I have just one small criticism though: Eggers is clearly trying to present a subtle polemic about the hypocrisies of neoliberal market capitalism.

And yet, he never really addresses the issue head on.

A $16 cup of coffee, after all, is really only available for the super rich. And hardly a long-term solution to fixing the problems associated with the global market system.

This small inconsistency, however, shouldn't put most readers off. The Monk of Mokha eschews typical political allegiances, or reductive ideologies, to make its point.

The book is more a modern-day global odyssey of sorts; a tale about developing countries in the global south, toiling endlessly for little money, so that richer nations in the developed north can continually consume in comfort; it's a story about people who produce, versus people who consume: and the struggle for human identity and dignity in between those opposing two worlds: where injustice and hypocrisy always loom in the distance.

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