The Monk of Mokha: The Origin of Coffee


words | hana qwfan


As promised, here is the second and final installment in Threads Magazine’s “Coffee Fortnight” web publication theme centered around coffee consumption. This week, one of our talented team of writers discussed the importance of coffee’s cultural heritage in Yemen, reviewed the story of coffee’s genesis through the lens of a java innovator’s lens, reinforced the beauty of deliberate, lifelong adventure, and much more. Keep reading to find out about the Yemeni radix of coffee and how java beans fueled one gentleman’s entire life story until it became responsible for inspiring the lives of millions of demoralized Yemeni Americans during an ongoing, persistent civil war.


Despite the art of coffee originating in Yemen, the country has only gained attention through the media by its fall into poverty and violence as the civil war within the country continues. David Eggers’ new nonfiction title, “The Monk of Mokha”, reintroduces Yemen through its agricultural prosperity and its resilient people through the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s rediscovery of the origin of coffee.


Have you ever wondered where coffee came from? To be honest, I always assumed that it came from somewhere in Africa or Latin America. While I started consuming coffee as early as the age of thirteen, my first assumption was that coffee was something that busy, innovative people consumed. Because I wanted to be a busy, innovative person, I found my addiction to coffee growing beyond my enjoyment of the taste. By the time I entered college, I consumed it regularly. It became a staple to my morning routine, a ritual for late nights in the holy month of Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting, starting May 15 this year), and a way to catch up with old friends. This is anything but surprising; a large majority of the world use coffee as a means for a variety of aspects. With American franchises such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean, I only paid attention to the westernized culture of coffee. What I didn’t realize, as a Yemeni American, was the historical importance of coffee in Yemeni culture.


I discovered that coffee originated from Yemen through my sister, who also informed me about a book that detailed the rediscovery of Yemeni coffee: The Monk of Mokha. The Monk of Mokha is a work of nonfiction written by Dave Eggers on the story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemeni American historian, coffee innovator, and founder of the Port of Mokha coffee. The story goes over Mokhtar’s endeavor to bring the art of Yemeni coffee into the game of coffee trade, despite the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war that broke out in 2015. While the story focuses on Mokhtar’s journey in Yemen, it also highlights his past faults, ambitions, and outlooks on new opportunities.

The book of travel literature also extended beyond Mokhtar, towards Yemeni culture, history, and politics. As a writer, I was happy to have the opportunity to read about so much of the culture that I grew up with. Sources that discuss the good in Yemen are highly limited, and for the longest time, I felt as though my culture was nonexistent to those who only heard of Yemen through biased political news channels. Living in the Central Valley, I’ve grown up surrounded by fields and agriculture. Learning about Yemen’s history of harvesting coffee made me recognize the connection between the large influx of Yemeni immigrants to the Central Valley during the 60s and 70s and their ancestral history in the agricultural industry.

The history of Yemen’s coffee is particularly fascinating, as it starts with the birth of the coffee fruit in Ethiopia, a berry with the pit of the fruit often referred to as the “coffee bean”. The actual roasting of coffee bean, however, originated in Yemen. Eggers then talks about the manner in which others from across the globe, such as the Indians and Dutch, stole the seedlings from Yemen to grow and harvest coffee within their own countries. As India and the Netherlands continue to supply a large amount of the world’s demand for coffee, Yemen has gone under the radar with no substantial supply for the market. This jumpstarted Mokhtar’s mission to reintroduce Yemeni coffee beans into the market.

Mokhtar’s story is elevating because of the various situations he was able to overcome, such as being trapped in Yemen during the outbreak of the civil war and having to find his own way to flee to safety. It is a story worth sharing, especially with Muslims who carry similar dreams to achieve something without knowing exactly what purpose they need to fulfill. His journey teaches one to have faith, to continue our childhood habit of cultivating curiosity, and to push forward. When I first heard of coffee originating in Yemen, I only heard it through word of mouth. Yet through this story, I was able to learn the parts of my culture that I never knew about - up-close and personal.

Within recent months, many Yemeni Americans have lost hope with the continuing beat of the civil war. Our parents and grandparents, sojourner immigrants, might have also lost hope in the idea of returning to Yemen to invest back into their home and local villages. However, while things may have become worse with time, it is important to realize what we can still carry with us. If Mokhtar Alkhanshali was successful in restoring some hope in Yemeni coffee farmers, as well as in Yemeni immigrants in America, then there might be some work for the rest of us Yemeni Americans to strive toward. Egger’s awe-inspiring publication reminded me that although this earth is a small world, there is still a lot to uncover and find. Whether we cherish our findings, share our newly discovered knowledge, or find inner peace through our own journeys, it is important to keep searching until we get there. As curious beings, it’s worthwhile to - at the very least - continue trying these explorations.