Mokhtar Alkhanshali and I agree to meet in Oakland. He has just returned from Yemen, having narrowly escaped with his life. An American citizen, Mokhtar was abandoned by his government and left to evade Saudi bombs and Houthi rebels. He had no means to leave the country. The airports had been destroyed and the roads out of the country were impassable. There were no evacuations planned, no assistance provided. The United States State Department had stranded thousands of Yemeni Americans, who were forced to devise their own means of fleeing a blitzkrieg—tens of thousands of U.S.-made bombs dropped on Yemen by the Saudi air force.
I wait for Mokhtar (pronounced MŌKH-tar) outside Blue Bottle Coffee in Jack London Square. Elsewhere in the United States, there is a trial under way in Boston, where two young brothers have been charged with setting off a series of bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing nine and wounding hundreds. High above Oakland, a police helicopter hovers, monitoring a dockworkers’ strike going on at the Port of Oakland. This is 2015, fourteen years after 9/11, and seven years into the administration of President Barack Obama. As a nation we had progressed from the high paranoia of the Bush years; the active harassment of Muslim Americans had eased somewhat, but any crime perpetrated by any Muslim American fanned the flames of Islamophobia for another few months.
When Mokhtar arrives, he looks older and more self-possessed than the last time I’d seen him. The man who gets out of the car this day is wearing khakis and a purple sweater-vest. His hair is short and gelled, and his goatee is neatly trimmed. He walks with a preternatural calm, his torso barely moving as his legs carry him across the street and to our table on the sidewalk. We shake hands, and on his right hand, I see that he wears a large silver ring, spiderwebbed with detailed markings, a great ruby-red stone set into it.
He ducks into Blue Bottle to say hello to friends working inside, and to bring me a cup of coffee from Ethiopia. He insists I wait till it cools to drink it. Coffee should not be enjoyed too hot, he says; it masks the flavor, and taste buds retreat from the heat. When we’re finally settled and the coffee has cooled, he begins to tell his story of entrapment and liberation in Yemen, and of how he grew up in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco—in many ways the city’s most
troubled neighborhood—how, while working as a doorman at a high-end apartment building downtown, he found his calling in coffee.
Mokhtar speaks quickly. He is very funny and deeply sincere, and illustrates his stories with photos he’s taken on his smartphone. Sometimes he plays the music he listened to during a particular episode of his story. Sometimes he sighs. Sometimes he wonders at his existence, his good fortune, being a poor kid from the Tenderloin who now has found some significant success as a coffee importer. Sometimes he laughs, amazed that he is not dead, given he lived through a Saudi bombing of Sana’a, and was held hostage by two different factions in Yemen after the country fell to civil war. But primarily he wants to talk about coffee. To show me pictures of coffee plants and coffee farmers. To talk about the history of coffee, the overlapping tales of adventure and derring-do that brought coffee to its current status as fuel for much of the world’s productivity, and a seventy-billion-dollar global commodity. The only time he slows down is when he describes the worry he caused his friends and family when he was trapped in Yemen. His large eyes well up and he pauses, staring at the photos on his phone for a moment before he can compose himself and continue.
Now, as I finish this book, it’s been three years since our meeting that day in Oakland. Before embarking on this project, I was a casual coffee drinker and a great skeptic of specialty coffee. I thought it was too expensive, and that anyone who cared so much about how coffee was brewed, or where it came from, or waited in line for certain coffees made certain ways, was pretentious and a fool.
But visiting coffee farms and farmers around the world, from Costa Rica to Ethiopia, has educated me. Mokhtar educated me. We visited his family in California’s Central Valley, and we picked coffee cherries in Santa Barbara—at North America’s only coffee farm. We chewed qat in Harar, and in the hills above the city we walked amid some of the oldest coffee plants on earth. In retracing his steps in Djibouti, we visited a dusty and hopeless refugee camp near the coastal outpost of Obock, and I watched as Mokhtar fought to recover the passport of a young Yemeni dental student who had fled the civil war and had nothing—not even his identity. In the most remote hills of Yemen, Mokhtar and I drank sugary tea with botanists and sheiks, and heard the laments of those who had no stake in the civil war and only wanted peace.
After all this, American voters elected—or the electoral college made possible—the presidency of a man who had promised to exclude all Muslims from entering the country—“until we figure out what’s going on,” he said. After inauguration, he made two efforts to ban travel to the United States by citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations. On this list was Yemen, a country more misunderstood than perhaps any other. “I hope they have wifi in the camps,” Mokhtar said to me after the election. It was a grim joke making the rounds in the Muslim American community, based on the presumption that Trump will, at the first opportunity—if there is a domestic terror incident propagated by a Muslim, for instance—propose the registry or even internment of Muslims in America. When he made the joke, Mokhtar was wearing a T-shirt that read MAKE COFFEE, NOT WAR.
Mokhtar’s sense of humor pervades everything he does and says, and in these pages I hope to have captured it and how it informs the way he sees the world, even at its most perilous. At one point during the Yemeni civil war, Mokhtar was captured and held in prison by a militia in Aden. Because he was raised in the United States and is steeped in American pop culture, it occurred to him that one of his captors looked like the Karate Kid; when Mokhtar recounted the episode to me, he called the captor the Karate Kid and nothing else. By using this nickname, I don’t mean to understate the danger Mokhtar was in, but feel it’s important to reflect the outlook of a man who is uniquely difficult to rattle, and who sees most dangers as only temporary impediments to more crucial concerns—the finding, roasting and importing of Yemeni coffee, and the progress of the farmers for whom he fights. And my guess is that this captor did look like the Ralph Macchio of the early 1980s.
Mokhtar is both humble before the history he inhabits and irreverent about his place in it. But his story is an old-fashioned one. It’s chiefly about the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat. His story is also about coffee, and about how he tried to improve coffee production in Yemen, where coffee cultivation was first undertaken five hundred years ago. It’s also about the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, a valley of desperation in a city
of towering wealth, about the families that live there and struggle to live there safely and with dignity. It’s about the strange preponderance of Yemenis in the liquor-store trade of California, and the unexpected history of Yemenis in the Central Valley. And how their work in California echoes their long history of farming in Yemen. And how direct trade can change the lives of farmers, giving them agency and standing. And about how Americans like Mokhtar Alkhanshali—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, between nations that produce and those that consume. And how these bridgemakers exquisitely and bravely embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome. And how when we forget that this is central to all that is best about this country, we forget ourselves—a blended people united not by stasis and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise on a human scale, by the inherent rightness of pressing forward, always forward, driven by courage unfettered and unyielding.
Miriam gave things to Mokhtar. Usually books. She gave him Das Kapital.
She gave him Noam Chomsky. She fed his mind. She fueled his aspirations. They dated for a year or so, but the odds were long. He was a Muslim Yemeni American, and she was half-Palestinian, half-Greek and a Christian. But she was beautiful, and fierce, and she fought harder for Mokhtar than he fought for himself. When he said he wanted to finally get his undergraduate degree and go to law school, she bought him a satchel. It was a lawyerly valise, made in Granada, painstakingly crafted from the softest leather, with brass rivets and buckles and elegant compartments within. Maybe, Miriam thought, the object would drive the dream.
Things were clicking into place, Mokhtar thought. He had finally saved enough money to enroll at City College of San Francisco and would start in the fall. After two years at City, he’d do two more at San Francisco State, then three years of law school. He’d be thirty when he finished. Not ideal, but it was a time line he could act on. For the first time in his academic life, there was something like clarity and momentum.
He needed a laptop for college, so he asked his brother Wallead for a loan. Wallead was less than a year younger—Irish twins, they called each other—but Wallead had things figured out. After years working as a doorman at a residential high-rise called the Infinity, Wallead had enrolled at the University of California, Davis. And he had enough money saved to pay for Mokhtar’s laptop. Wallead charged the new MacBook Air to his credit card, and Mokhtar promised to pay back the eleven hundred dollars in installments. Mokhtar put the laptop in Miriam’s satchel; it fit perfectly and looked lawyerly.
Mokhtar brought the satchel to the Somali fund-raiser. This was 2012, and he and a group of friends had organized an event in San Francisco to raise money for Somalis affected by the famine that had already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands. The benefit was during Ramadan, so everyone ate well and heard Somali American speakers talk about the plight of their countrymen. Three thousand dollars were raised, most of it in cash. Mokhtar put the money in the satchel and, wearing a suit and carrying a leather satchel containing a new laptop and a stack of dollars of every denomination, he felt like a man of action and purpose.
Because he was galvanized, and because by nature he was impulsive, he convinced one of the other organizers, Sayed Darwoush, to drive the funds an hour south, to Santa Clara, that night—immediately after the event. In Santa Clara they’d go to the mosque and give the money to a representative of Islamic Relief, the global nonprofit distributing aid in Somalia. One of the organizers asked Mokhtar to bring a large cooler full of leftover rooh afza,
a pink Pakistani drink made with milk and rose water. “You sure you have to go tonight?” Jeremy asked. Jeremy often thought Mokhtar was taking on too much and too soon.
“I’m fine,” Mokhtar said. It has to be tonight,
So Sayed drove, and all the way down Highway 101 they reflected on the generosity evident that night, and Mokhtar thought how good it felt to conjure an idea and see it realized. He thought, too, about what it would be like to have a law degree, to be the first of the Alkhanshalis in America with a JD. How eventually he’d graduate and represent asylum seekers, other Arab Americans with immigration issues. Maybe someday run for office.
Halfway to Santa Clara, Mokhtar was overcome with exhaustion. Getting the event together had taken weeks; now his body wanted rest. He set his head against the window. “Just closing my eyes,” he said.
When he woke, they were parked in the lot of the Santa Clara mosque. Sayed shook his shoulder. “Get up,” he said. Prayers were beginning in a few minutes.
Mokhtar got out of the car, half-asleep. They grabbed the rooh afza
out of the trunk and hustled into the mosque.
It was only after prayers that Mokhtar realized he’d left the satchel outside. On the ground, next to the car. He’d left the satchel, containing the three thousand dollars and his new eleven-hundred-dollar laptop, in the parking lot, at midnight.
He ran to the car. The satchel was gone.
They searched the parking lot. Nothing.
No one in the mosque had seen anything. Mokhtar and Sayed searched all night. Mokhtar didn’t sleep. Sayed went home in the morning. Mokhtar stayed in Santa Clara.
It made no sense to stay, but going home was impossible.
He called Jeremy. “I lost the satchel. I lost three thousand dollars and a laptop because of that damned pink milk. What do I tell people?”
Mokhtar couldn’t tell the hundreds of people who had donated to Somali famine relief that their money was gone. He couldn’t tell Miriam. He didn’t want to think of what she’d paid for the satchel, what she would think of him—losing all that he had, all at once. He couldn’t tell his parents. He couldn’t tell Wallead that they’d be paying off eleven hundred dollars for a laptop Mokhtar would never use.
The second day after he lost the satchel, another friend of Mokhtar’s, Ibrahim Ahmed Ibrahim, was flying to Egypt, to see what had become of the Arab Spring. Mokhtar caught a ride with him to the airport—it was halfway back to his parents’ house. Ibrahim was finishing at UC Berkeley; he’d have his degree in months. He didn’t know what to say to Mokhtar. Don’t worry
didn’t seem sufficient. He disappeared in the security line and flew to Cairo.
Mokhtar settled into one of the black leather chairs in the atrium of the airport, and sat for hours. He watched the people go. The families leaving and coming home. The businesspeople with their portfolios and plans. In the International Terminal, a monument to movement, he sat, vibrating, going nowhere.
Copyright © 2018 by Dave Eggers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.