The Monk of Mokha: review

The Monk of Mokha
Dave Eggers
Vintage (2019)

I marvel at my own coffee evolution. Nearly forty years ago as a brand new bride I started with a percolator–Corning Ware in the ever-popular butterfly gold–and made one pot each week on Saturday morning. Several years later I moved up to a Mr. Coffee and what followed were any number of other drip coffeemakers. The coffee itself? Folgers or Maxwell House. And then I turned a snob–french press, coffee beans bought bulk, ground right before steeping.

Today? I wake up, stick a pod into a single-brew system … and fuss because the wait is so long for my morning cup ‘o joe.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemini-American living in San Francisco, didn’t even drink coffee when he set out to become a coffee importer. His goal? To empower Yemeni coffee growers and bring coffee back to its origin story. Coffee, it seems, was first cultivated in Yemen. Not Ethiopia. Not Sumatra. Not even Costa Rico or Columbia. The Dutch stole a few plants in the 17th century, cultivated it in Java, and, subsequently, Europe spent a couple hundred years fighting over control of coffee production.

Mokhtar was out to return Yemen to its rightful place in coffee history.

His lofty goal must have seemed like a long shot to many. Mokhtar was a bit of a smart ass. A college drop out. His last job before becoming an entrepreneur? Doorman. But once he learned the story of coffee, Mokhtar threw himself headlong into making his dream a reality. He interned at Blue Bottle coffee. He insinuated himself into a specialty coffee conference. Wheedled and cajoled friends and relatives in the Yemeni community to back his venture.

And then he took off for Yemen.

Now even if you don’t know much about current events, you’ve surely heard of Yemen. Something about a civil war? The Houthis. Saudi bombings. Famine. Refugee camps. And there was Mokhtar Alkhanshali right in the thick of things.

He traveled the country with armed escorts. Was thrown in jail and detained multiple times. Lived through sniper fire and gun fights and bombing raids. All the while, pursuing his dream to bring Yemeni coffee–he had eighteen thousand kilograms waiting in a warehouse–to the rest of the world. Mukhtar was Teflon-coated. Nothing stuck. He could fast talk himself out of any situation.

In fact, at times his journey seemed fantastical. Beyond belief. Could a young man (he was only twenty-five at the time) really escape unscathed so many times? In the middle of a war zone?! I read much of the book with my mouth open in awe or was it maybe a hint of disbelief? Writer Dave Eggers accompanied Mokhtar to Yemen, visited the sites he talked about, and verified his experiences. (Here they talk about the book in this PBS interview in 2018.)

Mokhtar eventually makes it back to the U.S. via Djibouti. He gets that shipment of coffee. He roasts and markets the coffee. He makes his parents proud. It’s the American Dream, right?

Mokhtar’s coffee–marketed under the brand Port of Mokha–sells for $16 a cup, brewed. You read that right. Per cup. Even if I get fancy pants coffee pods, they go for less than a buck each. This is the fine wine of coffee, dear reader, and a far cry from my percolator-Mr. Coffee-or even French press days.

But I’m tempted to buy a cup should I ever have the opportunity.


Is it all too good to be true? I just read about a scandal related to Port of Mokha coffee and Mokhtar Alkhanshali. I don’t begin to know the ins and outs of the legal business dealings, but I do know the words “racketeering” and “embezzlement” aren’t good. You can read about the lawsuits Mokhtar is involved with here and here.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: review

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi
William Morrow

Be honest.

photo credit@National Geographic

How much do you really know about Afghanistan? That it’s the site of one of the United States’ longest foreign wars. That it was the seat of Osama bin Laden and el Qaeda. Maybe you read The Kite Runner, so you have at least a better-than-average understanding of what life in Afghanistan might be like. And everyone remembers the Girl With the Green Eyes on the cover of National Geographic in 1984. But if you’re like me, I’m guessing that’s the extent of it, right?

Nadia Hashimi’s novel The Pearl That Broke Its Shell tells the story of Rahima, one of four sisters in a poor family at the turn of the 21st century. Her Pader-jan is off fighting with the war lord; the Taliban rules the streets. And without a brother to escort the girls to school and the marketplace, they are virtually prisoners in their own home. (What makes matters even worse is that Pader-jan is an opium addict who is–let’s just say–less than helpful when he is home.) Rahima’s Mader-jan suggests that the nine-year-old become bacha posh, a custom in which a young girl takes the role of a male child. After all, Rahima’s great-great-grandmother was a bacha posh, too, so there is family history to consider. So the girl’s hair is cut short. She wears pants. Barters with the shopkeepers. But even better? As Rahim, she plays soccer, walks freely down the street, looks neighbors in the eye, and gets out of any woman’s work around the house. A stranger on the street would think Rahima really was a boy.

Pearl that broke its shellHashimi alternates between Rahim’s story and Shekiba, her great-great grandmother–and reveals the lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in Afghanistan over one hundred years. We experience life in a family compound with farmers who barely eke out a living. We shrink at the blows overbearing mothers-in-law rain on young wives. We live in a war lord’s harem. We feel what it’s like to be number three wife and backhanded by an angry husband for some insignificant infraction.

Those stories laid a groundwork for understanding modern day Afghanistan, at least through the eyes of a the women. So readers learn how powerful husbands enter a wife’s name in the running for a seat Parliament because western powers had dictated that a certain number of ministers be women. How those female ministers had ‘minders’ who signaled to them how to vote. How even in 2007 women were not to watch television or use a computer. And how bearing children is still a woman’s greatest worth.

In every society, no matter how repressive, there are always women who slip through the gender-role cracks. In The Pearl that character is Khala Shaima , Rahima’s elderly spinster aunt who is old enough (and she herself would probably say ugly enough) to say anything to anyone and go where she wants when she wants to. Khala Shaima is always there to fight for Rahima and push her to think beyond the confines of her life–to some day find a way to a better life.

But exactly how that pearl breaks its shell is yours to discover.

N is for The New Yorker (A-Z Blogging Challenge)

Today is day 14 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theThe New Yorker
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: The New Yorker


New Yorker
MyEyeSees@Flickr.com

 I think my first New Yorker subscription was over twenty-five years ago–it’s now a budgeted item, costly subscription notwithstanding. I’ve rarely been disappointed in an issue and love the breadth and depth of the writing.

I’ve read about Saddam Hussein’s death and Taylor Swift. About a dentist who faked his running records and the people who try to amass world records for Guinness. I learned about hand transplants and hoarders. About murderers and drug dealers. I read an article by the Newtown shooter’s father about his son. This week’s issue? A voyeur who recorded his observations over decades and a Filipino nanny.

And the covers. Oh my goodness the cover art. I saved this one because it said so much about how our first Black president was perceived.

In my AP class, I use some articles as classroom reading and for one marking period students choose an article each week from the several years I have saved. At first they complain the articles are too long. Then they get hooked–and often confused by the cartoons. (“I don’t get the ‘pictures’? They don’t go with the story …”) Dancers read reviews of ballets and drama kids read play reviews. There is a profile on Taylor Swift and one on John Green. Concussions in high school football. Hopefully, at least a few of the kids will remember the magazine fondly–and someday subscribe themselves.

Must-read Monday

A couple of recent weekends saw me flat out on the sofa, trying to rid myself of some horrible late-winter, early-spring virus. Ugh. Since I couldn’t do much except cough and grab for yet another tissue, my reading attention span was pretty short-lived. (Add the effects of cold medicine and you’ve got the picture!) Check these good reads if you’re out and about on the internet.

The Last Trial: Writer Elizabeth Kolbert  seeks to understand the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, from Nurenburg to the more recent trials of Oskar Groning and John Demjanjuk in the February 16 edition of The New Yorker. (The article was especially powerful considering recent anti-Sematic attacks in Denmark and France.) Most poignant was Kolbert’s discovery of Gunter Demnig’s Stolpersteine (stumbling block) project in which the artist embeds small brass plaques flush on sidewalks, memorializing the last known place a Holocaust victim lived before being taken away. Now thought to be the “largest decentralized memorial in the world” Elizabeth Kolbert commissions one for her great-grandmother and attends the installation. Over 48,000 Stolpersteine have been laid throughout Europe.

Your Son Is Deceased: Stephen and Renetta Torres received a phone call that would turn their world upside down. A neighbor’s call interupts a meeting to let Stephen know that cops have their house surrounded and a bomb-sniffing robot is working its way up the driveway. Knowing the only family member home was their mentally ill son Christopher, they rushed home only to be kept out of the “kill zone”, as one officer called it. As the story unravels, we meet the confused and agitated young man who couldn’t follow police commands and lost his life; the grieving parents whose faith in the system they served was broken; the witness whose testimony was ignored.

A Prosecutor Repents: Another great post by writer Rod Dreher whose blog is a treasure trove for those seeking to put news stories in some sort of cultural and spiritual context. Here a Louisiana prosecutor writes a letter of apology to an innocent man he prosecuted years before. Glen Ford was represented by inexperienced lawyers, a witness gave false testimony, and he was sentenced to death by an all-white jury. Former prosecutor Marty Stroud speaks eloquently about his decision that the death penalty is wrong. (Warning: the video embedded in the post is on autoplay and so will begin when you open the post.) NPR interviewed Mr. Stroud on All Things Considered today.

Wait, Wait … I’m not done yet! (review)

I drink my morning coffee with Steve Innskeep, my drive home is accompanied by Here and Now’s Robin Young, and I fix dinner or grade papers to the sound of Robert Siegal and Melissa Block. It’s not that I have a seriously packed social calendar, though. Rather, those are the NPR program hosts that make up  the soundtrack of my life.

Wait wait I'm not done yetAnd how can I forget the years I spent with Noah Adams or Linda Wertheimer or Susan Stamberg? Or the dulcet tones of Carl Kasell, who anchored the news on Morning Edition for nearly thirty years.

Carl Kasell has written a memoir titled Wait, Wait … I’m Not Done Yet, a reference to his second NPR career as Peter Sagal’s sidekick on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the news quiz show. (Would it surprise you if I told you the book was a membership drive giveaway?)

Kasell’s book went down as smoothly as his reading of the news, but was decidedly more homespun in nature. The memoir covers his childhood, college days, early career, and, of course, his time at NPR—Kasell’s own memories are alternated with reflections of his co-workers, friends, and family members. The tone is warm and conversational. In fact, the almost folksy nature of the memoir was at first a little off-putting (I guess I was expecting something a little more weighty and NPR-ish), but I quickly settled into a long chat with good friends.

So many good stories and tidbits here. Kasell’s high school drama teacher? Andy Griffith (Who knew?!) Kasell’s lovely Italian bride Clara and their young family. His desolation after her death.  One of his college interns? Katie Couric. Kasell’s serendipitous seating at a wedding  reception with a lovely woman, now his wife Mary Ann. The tenor of the NPR newsroom on 9-11. And his (again!) meteoric rise to fame (at least in NPR land) as Peter Sagal’s co-host on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

I’m thinking this book might be a little too much of an inside story for anyone who isn’t an NPR listener. But for those of you who are, it’s like a pleasant visit with dear friends, catching up on old times and I was sorry to see it end.

As in, “Wait, wait, don’t go yet!”