Monk of Mokha (Eggers)

The Monk of Mokha 
Dave Eggers, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
352 pp.
ISBN-13:
9781101947319


Summary
"A gripping, triumphant adventure" (Los Angeles Times) from bestselling author Dave Eggers, the incredible true story of a young Yemeni American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreams of resurrecting the ancient art of Yemeni coffee but finds himself trapped in Sana’a by civil war.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali is twenty-four and working as a doorman when he discovers the astonishing history of coffee and Yemen’s central place in it.

He leaves San Francisco and travels deep into his ancestral homeland to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains and meet beleaguered but determined farmers.

But when war engulfs the country and Saudi bombs rain down, Mokhtar has to find a way out of Yemen without sacrificing his dreams or abandoning his people. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—March 12, 1970
Where—Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Raised—Lake Forest, Illinois
Education—University of Illinois (no degree)
Currently—lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California


Dave Eggers is an American writer, editor, and publisher. He is known for the best-selling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and for his more recent work as a novelist and screenwriter.

He is also the founder of McSweeney's, the co-founder of the literacy project 826 Valencia, and the founder of ScholarMatch, a program that matches donors with students needing funds for college tuition. His works have appeared in several magazines, most notably The New Yorker. His works have received a significant amount of critical acclaim.

Personal life
Eggers was born in Boston, Massachusetts, one of four siblings. His father was John K. Eggers (1936–1991), an attorney. His mother, Heidi McSweeney Eggers (1940–1992), was a school teacher. When Eggers was still a child, the family moved to the upscale suburb of Lake Forest, near Chicago. He attended high school there and was a classmate of the actor Vince Vaughn. Eggers attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, intending to get a degree in journalism, but his studies were interrupted by the deaths of both of his parents in 1991–1992—his father in 1991 from brain and lung cancer, and his mother in January 1992 from stomach cancer. Both were in their 50s.

These events were chronicled in his first book, the fictionalized A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. At the time, Eggers was 21, and his younger brother, Christopher ("Toph"), was 8 years old. The two eldest siblings, Bill and Beth, were unable to commit to care for Toph; his older brother had a full-time job and his sister was enrolled in law school. As a result, Dave Eggers took the responsibility.

He left the University of Illinois and moved to Berkeley, California, with his girlfriend Kirsten and his brother. They initially moved in with Eggers's sister, Beth, and her roommate, but eventually found a place in another part of town, which they paid for with money left to them by their parents. Toph attended a small private school, and Eggers did temp work and freelance graphic design for a local newspaper. Eventually, with his friend David Moodie, he took over a local free newspaper called Cups. This gradually evolved into the satirical magazine Might.

Eggers lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is married to Vendela Vida, also a writer. They have two children.

He was one of three 2008 TED Prize recipients. His TED Prize wish was for community members to personally engage with local public schools The same year, Utne Reader named him one of "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing the World."

In 2005, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Brown University. He delivered the baccalaureate address at the school in 2008.

Literary work
• Egger's first book was a memoir (with fictional elements), A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), which focused on the author's struggle to raise his younger brother in San Francisco following the deaths of both of their parents. The book quickly became a bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.

• In 2002, Eggers published his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, a story about a frustrating attempt to give away money to deserving people while haphazardly traveling the globe. He has also published a collection of short stories, How We Are Hungry, and three politically themed serials for Salon.com.

• In 2005, Eggers published Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, a book of interviews with former prisoners sentenced to death and later exonerated. The book was compiled with Lola Vollen, "a physician specializing in the aftermath of large-scale human rights abuses" and "a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute of International Studies and a practicing clinician." Lawyer novelist Scott Turow wrote the introduction to Surviving Justice.

• Eggers' 2006 novel What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Eggers also edits the Best American Nonrequired Reading series, an annual anthology of short stories, essays, journalism, satire, and alternative comics.

• In 2009, he published Zeitoun and, as a result, was presented with the Courage in Media Award by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Zeitoun is the account of a Syrian immigrant, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, in New Orleans who was helping neighbors after Hurricane Katrina when he was arrested, imprisoned and suffered abuse. The book has been optioned by Jonathan Demme, who is working on a screenplay for an animated film-rendition of the work. To Demme, it "felt like the first in-depth immersion I’d ever had through literature or film into the Muslim-American family.... The moral was that they are like people of any other faith."

• Eggers published A Hologram for the King in July 2012, which became a finalist for the National Book Award. The novel is the story of one man's struggle to hold himself and his splintering family together in the face of the new realities of a global economy.

• In 2013, he released The Circle, a satirical novel about the internet's subversive power over citizen privacy. The Circle is a combination of Facebook, Google, Twitter and more, as seen through the eyes of Mae Holland, a new hire who starts in customer service.

McSweeney's
In 1998, Eggers founded McSweeney's, an independent publishing house, which takes his mother's maiden name. Apart from its book list, McSweeney's also publishes the quarterly literary journal Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, the daily-updated literature and humor site McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the monthly magazine The Believer, the quarterly food journal Lucky Peach, the sports journal Grantland Quarterly (in association with sports and pop culture website Grantland), and the quarterly DVD magazine, Wholphin. The publishing house also runs three additional imprints: Believer Books; McSweeney's McMullens, a children's book department; and the Collins Library.

826 National
In 2002, Eggers and educator Nínive Clements Calegari co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for kids ages 6–18 in San Francisco. It has since grown into seven chapters across the United States: Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Boston, and Washington, D.C., all under the auspices of the nonprofit organization 826 National.

In 2006, Eggers appeared at a series of fund-raising events, dubbed "Revenge of the Book–Eaters Tour," to support his educational programs. The Chicago show featured Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard. Other performers on the tour included Sufjan Stevens, Jon Stewart, Davy Rothbart, and David Byrne.

In 2007, the Heinz Family Foundation awarded Eggers a $250,000 Heinz Award (given to recognize "extraordinary achievements by individuals"). In accordance with Eggers' wishes, the award money was given to 826 National and The Teacher Salary Project. In April 2010, under the umbrella of 826 National, Eggers launched ScholarMatch, a nonprofit organization that connects donors with students to make college more affordable. (Adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/17/2013.)



Book Reviews
The Monk of Mokha is the third in [Eggers's] series of real-life accounts of immigrants to America caught in the jaws of history.… Each book is a tale of a latter-day Job and a reflection on the act of storytelling itself, none more so than this latest, in which a singularly reckless young man keeps himself alive like Scheherazade—his ability to spin stories ensures his survival.… Narrative nonfiction …is [Eggers's] natural home. Telling other people's stories seems to focus him. The sentences take on an Orwellian clarity—they're lean and clean.… In The Monk of Mokha, he moves lightly between story and analysis, and between brisk histories of Yemeni immigration to America; gentrifying San Francisco; coffee cultivation …and the saints and thieves who dispersed the beans around the world.
Parul Sehgal - New York Times


A true account of a scrappy underdog, told in a lively, accessible style.… Absolutely as gripping and cinematically dramatic as any fictional cliffhanger.
Michael Lindgren - Washington Post


Exquisitely interesting.… This is about the human capacity to dream—here, there, everywhere.
Gabriel Thompson - San Francisco Chronicle
 

A cracking tale of intrigue and bravery.… A gripping, triumphant adventure story.
Paul Constant - Los Angeles Times


A heady brew.… Plainspoken but gripping.… Dives deep into a crisis but delivers a jolt of uplift as well.
Mark Athitakis - USA Today


Remarkable.… [O]ffers hope in the age of Trump.… Ends as a kind of breathless thriller as Mokhtar braves militia roadblocks, kidnappings and multiple mortal dangers.
Tim Adams - Guardian (UK)
 

[T]he exciting true story of a Yemeni-American man’s attempts to promote his ancestral country’s heritage.… [A] heartwarming success story with a winning central character and an account of real-life adventures that read with the vividness of fiction.
Publishers Weekly


The son of Yemini immigrants… journeys to his parents' homeland to learn more about its cultivation and help Yemeni farmers return their crops to the renown they once had. All's well until… Mokhtar finds he's… trapped in the crosscurrents of sectarian violence.
Library Journal


[A] phenomenally well-written, juggernaut of a tale of an intrepid and irresistible entrepreneur on a complex and meaningful mission. This highly caffeinated adventure story is ready-made for the big screen.
Booklist


(Starred review) [T]his book is about …the undeniable value of "U.S. citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labor, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds…."
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the Saul Bellow epigraph that opens The Monk of Mokha. How does this paragraph set the tone for Mokhtar’s story?

2. Mokhtar grows up in the Tenderloin, one of the most notoriously crime-ridden neighborhoods of San Francisco. How does he navigate that world as a young man? How does the neighborhood color his perspective on the world? His understanding of himself? Of poverty? Once he leaves the neighborhood, how do the lessons of the Tenderloin stick with him?

3. On pages 18–19, the reader learns that despite his general apathy toward school, Mokhtar loves books. Describe how Mokhtar’s "library" acts as a means of escape for him. How do books open up his worldview? How does his love of learning follow him throughout his life and shape his career?

4. In Book 1, the reader is introduced to the scenario wherein Mokhtar loses the satchel containing thousands of dollars and his brand-new laptop. Describe Mokhtar’s reaction to his folly. What fears does this stoke? How does this incident motivate him?

5. San Francisco is an economically divided city, where stratification of wealth is readily apparent. At what point in Mokhtar’s life does he begin to understand this economic divide? How do his first jobs—at Banana Republic, at the Honda dealership, and later at the Infinity—provide him with a lens to understand wealth and power in the United States? How does his exposure to wealth change his worldview or shift his understanding of his own economic possibilities?

6. Discuss the role of family in Mokhtar’s personal and professional life. What expectations are laid upon him as the son of Yemeni immigrants? What values do Mokhtar’s parents instill in him? How does his family aid him in his journey to create his business?

7. After landing his job at Banana Republic, Mokhtar begins to dress in what he and his friends call his "Rupert" look, and Eggers notes that "the effect of his appearance on the world was profound" (page 30). Discuss this transition. How did this change in appearance affect his self-esteem? How others in the world treated him? Relate this emphasis on physical appearance to how he presents himself as he is growing his business. How does a polished physical presentation help him to gain confidence in his business interactions? What identity is he trying to signal to the world?

8. Throughout The Monk of Mokha, the concept of code-switching is discussed, particularly in relation to Mokhtar’s status as both an American citizen and that of a Yemeni American. Discuss situations wherein he is deemed "not American enough" or "not Yemeni enough." How is he forced to adapt his behavior based on his social setting? How does he contend with situations of injustice?

9. Discuss the development of Mokhtar’s business plan, from ideation to execution. What principles undergird his business? What business models does he admire? Who or what is most influential in helping to develop his business acumen? How does his understanding of the coffee industry evolve over the course of the narrative?

10. On page 75, Mokhtar is asked by Ghassan: "Are you a businessman or are you an activist? For now, at least, you have to pick one." Does he? How does his interest in social justice affect his plans for business development? Discuss the mission of his business. How does his interest in honoring his Yemeni heritage add an extra pressure for him to succeed?

11. Discuss the colonialist roots of the coffee trade. How was the Yemeni culture robbed of its resource? Were you aware of this background?

12. In The Monk of Mokha, coffee is described as a "recession-proof" commodity, yet the process for entering the trade is one that is very difficult for outsiders. Discuss the challenges that Mokhtar faced as he learned the trade. How does he gain the trust of those in the industry, from the pickers to the distributors? How does his business model interrupt the standard practices within the industry?

13. Discuss the difference in atmosphere between Mokhtar’s first experience living in Yemen as a teenager and his travels there as an adult. How does his understanding of the country change as he matures? Discuss the effect of the civil war on Yemeni culture. How does Mokhtar navigate this environment? What advantages does he have as an American citizen?

14. In the last few chapters of The Monk of Mokha, as Mokhtar tries to escape Yemen, the reader is drawn into a fast-paced, gripping narrative of his escape. What was the most disturbing aspect of his experience? When do you think Mokhtar was most frightened for his well-being? How did he rely on his street smarts to help him to safety?

15. In the final scenes of the book, Eggers reveals himself as a "character" directly in the text. How would you describe Eggers’s narrative style throughout this book? If you have read other works by Eggers, how does this book compare to those books from a stylistic perspective?

16. Discuss the idea of the "American dream" and its cultural import in today’s world. How does Mokhtar’s story adhere to this narrative? How does his experience complicate the idea of what the American success story can look like? Consider the last chapters of the book. What was the defining moment of his success?
(Questions issued by the publishers.)

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