In The Monk of Mokha, bestselling author Dave Eggers tells the true story of Mokhtar Al Kunshali, a philanthropic and entrepreneurial Yemeni-American, who dreams of reviving Yemen's pre-eminence in the global coffee market. After all, the roots of coffee-drinking trace back to 15th century Yemen (although coffee beans are thought to originate from Ethiopia). The port of Mokha, which lends the book its title, was once famed for exporting Yemen's distinctive chocolate-flavoured beans.
The book tells of Al Kunshali's return to Yemen, where he spends a few years convincing remote mountaintop farmers to join his audacious coffee-growing scheme. Unfortunately, things get complicated when in 2015, civil war breaks out and exporting the harvest becomes almost impossible. Not to be thwarted, however, courting death, prison and various other misadventures, Al Kunshali ultimately makes it back to the US with his prized cargo. The beans are presented at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) in a blind cupping taste test and are awarded a score of more than 90. This is about as high as the score goes, making the Yemeni coffee one of the best coffees in the world. James Freeman, an eminent figure from the coffee world, described the taste as “angels singing”.
I was recently fortunate enough to drink a cup of this coffee, brewed from the very beans that left the port of Mokha in 2015. It did not disappoint. Despite being a regular drinker of so-called mochas and mochaccinos, this was the first time I had ever really tasted a mocha from Mokha.
In an era of fake news, where “fake it until you make it” has become a mantra, there is a growing appreciation for authenticity and all things artisanal and homemade – even in small ways, such as food and drink originating from the location implied by its name. Cheddar cheese is produced around the world and does not have a protected designation of origin but to be authentic, it should be from the village of Cheddar in Somerset in the west of England; similarly, mocha coffee should hail from Mokha. This appetite for authenticity is also reflected in the rising popularity of organic, Fairtrade and real food movements.
Knowing the origins of my mocha and the story of its journey enriched my appreciation of the drink, as did knowing about coffee's history and Yemen’s place in that story. My enjoyment was further enhanced by knowing that Al Kunshali’s efforts were rooted in philanthropic, non-exploitative, ideals.
I wasn't just drinking coffee; I was drinking a story, a beautiful tale of hope, help and heritage. Not all products, however, have such pretty tales. From child labour to inhumane treatment of animals, the stories behind some of the things we consume are horrific. These are the stories we might prefer to remain unknown, untold. Were I to discover, for example, that young children were exploited in the making of my phone, it might cause me to reconsider my purchase in the first place.
The poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser is credited with saying: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms”. This sentiment works equally well for the things we consume. There are tiny stories behind every product on the supermarket shelf, stories that include how the item got its name, where it originated and who was involved in its cultivation, creation or production. When we consume food and drink, we don’t just imbibe the molecules, we also absorb the story.
Life is short; perhaps we can’t know all the stories behind all the things we consume but we can at least get to know a few. Becoming more aware of the things we consume can deepen our appreciation of those things, turning mindless consumption into compassionate connoisseurship. On the other hand, if we don’t like the story, if it doesn’t align with our values, we might choose to discontinue our consumption.
Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University