Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Butterfly Effect: The Mokha Version

In a time when we hear in the media about people - some of them with a certain public status - that are bothered by hearing foreign languages (other than English) spoken in public or about countries that are 'full', reading positive immigrant stories brings some light. It sounds cheesy and stereotypical but that's the only good thing that can be done given the current American - and not only - toxic public discourse regarding immigrants. Ironically, in a country built by immigrants.
The Monk of Mokha is part of a series of non-fiction books by Dave Eggers offering real-life accounts of immigrants to America. I've read some of Eggers books and I am fine with them, but this work of non-fiction was a pleasant surprise: it is a well-researched piece of journalism that can be read in so many ways. Mokhtar Alkhanshali is the son of Yemeni immigrants growing up in the high-risk area of Tenderloin in San Francisco. He keeps switching jobs without a certain professional direction in mind, until he become familiar with the 500-year history of the Yemeni coffee. The story goes that actually the coffee was discovered in Yemen, not in Ethiopia. However, Mokha is a port in Yemen. At the time, the kind of coffee no one was keen too pay for and placed on the lowest level on the Western preferences. Nowadays, it's America's most expensive coffee, sold for 16$ the cup.
Mokhtar takes a huge leap of faith and decided to return to Yemen, in a time when the country was dramatically torn by civil conflict and instability. He will research all the possible coffee farms, will identify the best coffee beans and will learn himself almost everything about making and producing coffee. But how to launch a global business when the country can get closed any time and shipping to America might be amost impossible especially when Mokhtar himself, although an American citizen, can be the target of additional security screening and border interrogations?
You need to really believe in your dream and the non-coffee induced sleepless nights (a bit of qat helped maybe) spent setting up the details of an incredible yet successful entreprise. No terrible threat was enough to discourage Mokhtar from giving up. From his high clouds, he can easily pass through the political changes underwent by Yemen and move forward. 'Mokhtar's family and friends in the United States worried for him, but Mokhtar saw very little change in his daily life. He'd gone to bed one night with Hadi in power, and woke up without a president. And yet the airport was still open and hosted regular commercial flights. The banks functioned as usual. And the grocery stores, the health clubs, the mosques. Taxi drivers drove their taxis. Sana'a was still Sana'a though it was now run by Houthis. The lives of everyday working Yemenis continued unchanged. Mokhtar spent afternoons at Andrew's mill, chewing qat with Ali and together they laughed at the Yemeni Americans who were fleeing the country'.
But the boy whose grandfather couldn't believe he is worth more than a donkey succeeded and nowadays, the Port of Mokha is a most sought coffee in San Francisco. And there is more than that: the success of the product in America made back in Yemen a lot of people - especially women - happy as they got secured a job, but also encouraged the local production of coffee. Butterfly effect at its best.
The book can be read in more than one way, depending on what the reader is looking for. It offers inspiration to those looking for business inspiration. It sooth the immigrants in need of a positive story to brighten their dark beginnings. Those interested to travel to Yemen might have first hand accounts of what to expect, not only from the point of view of the security situation, but also regarding the culture. First and foremost though, it is Mokhtar Alkhanshali story of finding his voice while switching from being a doorman without a clear direction to becoming a business man in his own right. 
Stories like his are building the socio-human texture of a society built on diversity and that survived because of its exceptional immigrants that succeeded because they built bridges between cultures and people. Walls never did anything good except in construction work. Let's hope that in the end, the dream -and not the nightmare will prevail.

Rating: 5 stars

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