Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of The Monk of Mokha, appear at Carnegie Music Hall Dec. 10 | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Dave Eggers and Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the subject of The Monk of Mokha, appear at Carnegie Music Hall Dec. 10

It's the story of immigration, war, and coffee

Mokhtar overlooking coffee terraces in the region of Bura

The price of a cup of Port of Mokha coffee is about $16.

That's not a misprint — it's $16 for a single cup. Port of Mokha's coffee is widely considered some of the best in the world, but even if it weren't, that $16 might be a more justified price than you'd think. 

Starting with the farmers who tend coffee trees and the workers who hand-pick every bean, to the roasters and baristas, a cup of coffee is one of the most labor-intensive goods in the world. Mokhtar Alkhanshali, the founder of Port of Mokha and the subject of Dave Eggers' The Monk of Mokha (Knopf), says that as many as 20 people may be involved in bringing that single cup to a cafe or coffee shop. 

“You're waiting in line for minutes and you're wondering what took so long,” says Alkhanshli. “But it probably took a year to get to you. And anywhere along that path it could have been ruined.”

Alkhanshali and Eggers will speak Dec. 10 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland as guests of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures’ Ten Evenings series.

Alkanshali's story is one of fortitude and perseverance. A Yemeni American born in Brooklyn and raised in the Tenderloin section of San Francisco, Alkhanshali hustled his way into jobs at clothing stores and an automobile dealership before he was 20. He dropped out of college and worked as a doorman for an exclusive San Francisco apartment building.

It wasn't until he discovered a statue, known as the Hills Brothers Coffee Drinker, right across from the apartment building, that his passion for coffee was ignited. Alkhanshali learned that, just like his family, the man depicted in the statue was from Yemen. Thus began a journey that led him to borrowing thousands of dollars to hire a consultant to learn the coffee trade. Eventually, it led him to his homeland where he recruited farmers with the promise of improving their lives through fair trade practices.

Besides the logistical business and agricultural challenges, in 2015 Alkhanshali faced a Yemen that was spiraling into a violent civil war. The coffee consultant working with Alkhanshali was advised to return to the United States because of the dangers to foreigners. As Alkhanshali ventured across Yemen to recruit farmers, he more often than not found himself in dangerous situations.

He was lucky, but also thinks a higher power was guiding him. “Certainly, logic can take you from Point A to Point B, but faith can take you anywhere,” says Alkhanshali. “Looking at my story, it's hard for me not to acknowledge that. Whether you call it Allah, God, Jesus, Yahweh, the Force — whatever it is, there's something there. Because along my journey I kept getting protected, guided along this path. It happened one time after another, and there was no logical trajectory to take me from where I was to where I am today.”

Alkhanshali did not risk his life to make ordinary coffee. Yemeni coffee, known for its natural sweetness, has long been considered extraordinary, and Coffee Review gave it a 94 rating, its second highest score ever. “It has the most amount of cultivars and genetic diversity,” says Alkhanshali, comparing the country's various coffees to different types of apples.

“There's not much water in these areas so the trees are constantly under stress,” he says. “It's just like when grapes are stressed, they produce sweeter wine. The same kind of thing happens with our coffee. It produces more intense flavors. All these things make for perfect conditions for very unique flavors.”

Alkhanshali pays Yemeni farmers $6 for a kilo of coffee beans; the usual rate is 50 cents per kilo. The farmers are thus able to pay workers a decent wage. He's financed micro loans to help farmers re-establish their coffee crops. 

“The thing about what I do is — it's not charity,” he says. “A lot of NGO work sometimes creates dependency. But these farmers work really hard to bring you coffee, and I'm helping them to bridge these markets. I think in this way, I empower them.”

Between the Lines

Joe Wos, cartoonist extraordinaire and founder of the much missed ToonSeum, will appear Dec. 9 at Riverstone Bookstore in McCandless. Wos' latest books, Maze-0-Zoic and Myths and Monsters, are interactive pleasures for kids of any age.

2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 9, Riverstone Bookstore, McCandless. riverstonebooks.com

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