The Tenderloin was “the city’s go-zone for crack, meth, prostitution, petty crime and public defecation,” Eggers writes, the “illegal-activity containment zone.” But it was also one of the city’s most affordable neighborhoods, where newly arrived families from Asia and the Middle East settled to start a new life.
In his youth Mokhtar wandered the streets without clear purpose. He became accustomed to the sight of hustlers and junkies and the stench of human feces, urine and weed. In local playgrounds children as young as 13 smoked pot. Mokhtar found it hard to avoid trouble and became “a fast learner, a fast talker, a corner cutter.” His adventures included trips to the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, where he and his friends dropped their trousers to moon the residents. Aimless and without ambition, he did not appear destined for much.
But there was another side to Mokhtar — the autodidact who loved to read and who crammed all the books he had found or stolen onto a shelf in the kitchen pantry: the Goosebumps novels, “The Lord of the Rings,” and especially the Harry Potter books. When Mokhtar daydreamed, “his mind drifted and allowed the possibility that maybe he was, like Harry, part of this hardscrabble world for now, but destined for something more.”
By the time Mokhtar was in eighth grade, his parents worried he was going astray and decided he should spend time with his wealthy grandfather in Yemen. Maybe the change of location and immersion in history would do him good.
Mokhtar spoke some Arabic, but a street-smart American kid from the Tenderloin was predictably out of place in rural Yemen. Unfamiliar with local customs, he didn’t know how to dress, speak, eat or walk like a proper Yemeni.
This is where you expect the story to take a familiar turn: A smart Muslim kid from a rough neighborhood in the West, sent back to the motherland in an attempt to strengthen his roots, instead becomes disillusioned and lost between two identities before he finds solace and purpose in religious fundamentalism and jihad. Right?
Under the tutelage of his businessman grandfather, who brings him to meetings and on work trips, the adolescent Mokhtar is converted instead to the religion of capitalism. Back in America he takes a high school job at Banana Republic and starts dressing in sweater vests. His friends began calling him Rupert after the dapper comic-strip bear.
This book is about Mokhtar’s journey from the Tenderloin to the mountains of Yemen in pursuit of a dream. It is also about his personal journey, as he learns to navigate two identities and begins to find his true self.
Like Mokhtar himself, however, the book loses focus for long stretches, following him from job to job in arduous pages that go nowhere until Mokhtar, working as a doorman at a luxury building, sees a 20-foot-tall statue of a Yemeni man drinking from a giant coffee cup. He learns about the beverage’s origins — “Yemenis basically invented coffee. You didn’t know this?” his mother tells him — and feels at last that he has a mission. Finally we get a jolt of excitement and the book starts to flow.
Eggers traces the often contested history of coffee, from the Ethiopian shepherd who noticed that his goats were jumping and prancing after eating the fruit of a nearby tree, to Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili, a Sufi man living in Mokha who first brewed the drink we know today. Later Eggers tells us about the rogue adventurers who stole coffee and spread it to the rest of the world: Indonesia, Latin America, Africa.
Mokhtar imagines himself one of those adventurers, aiming first to revive Yemen’s 500-year-old coffee culture and then to export its high-quality arabica beans. By persuading distributors to pay a premium, he hopes to convince farmers their future is in coffee rather than khat, a shrub grown for its highly addictive chewable leaves.
Simple, right? Yet there are drawbacks. For one, coffee cultivation has almost disappeared in Yemen. For another, Mokhtar knows practically nothing about coffee. He came to the crop not because he loved it — he’d drunk only a few dozen cups his entire life — but because Yemen’s historical role in its cultivation and dissemination appealed to him so much.
Let’s be clear: In Yemen, any project — even one much smaller than resurrecting an ancient trade — is a serious challenge at the best of times. Access to international markets is difficult, bank loans are nonexistent, and trips outside Sanaa can require hours of haggling with petty bureaucrats and local tribes. Security risks include bandits, feuding tribesmen and jihadis. Throw in an unfolding political crisis, militias taking over the capital, the collapse of the state and a subsequent civil war, and Mokhtar’s mission seems purely impossible. Still, in Eggers’s telling Mokhtar is no ordinary man, and he has more than ordinary luck. Friends offer emotional and financial support; Yemeni farmers treat him as a guest even if they don’t expect to see him again.
Eggers describes Yemen, with some justification, as the world’s most misunderstood country. Yet he seems mostly uninterested in closing that gap, serving up clichés that only exacerbate the problem. His portrait of Yemen is a cheap cup of instant coffee. Then again, this is less a book about Yemen than the old-fashioned American dream. As Mokhtar makes his way through mountains and villages collecting samples of coffee beans, he grows more and more capable. No longer an ignorant American who can’t distinguish between an olive tree and a coffee tree, he becomes an enthusiastic expert who can capture the attention of a roomful of skeptical farmers with a passionate speech — admittedly fueled by khat — about the glories of Yemeni coffee. No longer a dreamer, he is a visionary businessman and leader.
In an age marked by entrenched identities, nationalism and ideological purity, Mokhtar emerges as a confident member of two cultures, both Yemeni and American. He is a reminder, as Eggers says, that America is “a blended people united not by stasis and cowardice and fear, but by irrational exuberance and global enterprise on a human scale … driven by courage unfettered and unyielding.” If he seems more symbolic than complicated or deep, well, isn’t that American too?
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