Mokhtar Alkhanshali: Coffee, Yemen and the American Dream

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Welcome to Inspired By…, an occasional Tostada Magazine series where we interview the artists, innovators, and leaders who are working to make our foodways and communities a better place — all over a meal. Each dispatch, we’ll sit down with an influential figure in one of Detroit’s many food and drink places and find out what inspires their world. For our first Inspired By… installment, we met up for coffee with Mokhtar Alkhanshali, founder of Port of Mokha, an Oakland Calif.-based social enterprise/coffee roaster, responsible for restoring Yemen’s place as the growers of the best coffee in the world. The subject of best selling author Dave Eggers’ newest book, The Monk of Mokha, Alkhanshali visited Metro Detroit this week to talk about his unlikely story, but also to connect with other Arab-Americans in Dearborn, where he felt right at home.

Mokhtar Alkhanshali hates that term third wave coffee, used to define the many trendy, artisan coffee shops that dot hipster neighborhoods all over the United States. The phrase, after all, was coined to describe the American roasters over the past 15-20 years that have turned to more socially-conscious methods of sourcing their coffee — a departure from the mid-grade coffee chains that ruled the 80s and 90s. What the term fails to recognize are coffee’s origins, which can be traced to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Specifically, according to Alkhanshali’s research, the first coffee berries (coffee beans are actually found inside a cherry-like, fleshy fruit) could be traced to Ethiopia, while the first cup of coffee was brewed in Yemen hundreds of years ago, the home of Alkhanshali’s family origins. Instantly recognized for its ability to stimulate political discourse in cafes all over the country, coffee was at one time banned as it was believed that drinkers would gather and plan their dissent against the ruling class. In coffee’s early days, the port city Mokha reigned over the coffee trade and was closely guarded. Over the centuries, Yemen’s standing as a leader in the coffee world faltered as it made its way across Europe and the Americas.

In other words, if we were going off coffee’s epic world history, we would be many, many more waves ahead by now.

In The Monk of Mokha, Eggers follows Alkhanshali from his early childhood in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant where his father owned a liquor store to his youth in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and his early 20s, where, as a doorman in an expensive high-rise apartment building, Alkhanshali discovered that his Yemeni ancestors played an integral role in the development of coffee as one of the greatest commodities on the planet. His awakening came unexpectedly when a friend texted him a photo of a statue depicting an Arab man dressed in a flower-covered robe and a turban and sipping on a cup of coffee. That statue turned out to be the icon for the century-plus-old Hills Bros. founded in San Francisco. It’s at this moment that he decides his life’s calling is in learning all he can about coffee’s Yemeni origins and restoring the country’s place as a leader in the coffee world. During the height of the country’s humanitarian crisis in 2015, he canvassed the many coffee-growing regions, while empowering its farmers with improved cultivating practices and a means to improve their economic status.

Tostada Magazine first saw Alkhanshali this week at a talk he gave about the book at the Arab American National Museum. We interviewed the next day at Anthology Coffee in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, where he’s been talking with owner Josh Longsdorf about the possibility of carrying his coveted Port of Mokha line (a set of three 4-ounce boxes of the coffee goes for $158, for example). He tells us how coffee helped him to bridge his Yemeni roots, the draw of Dearborn for Arab-Americans and his hope for youth looking for inspiration.

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You’re in the middle of an international book tour, but you’ve mentioned that the people who usually attend your appearances are hardcore coffee fans. What was it like to see a room full of other Arab and Yemeni-Americans in the audience?

I felt like I was at home. It was my first time in Dearborn. I’ve heard about Dearborn all my life as a Yemeni growing up on the West Coast. Dearborn was like a center for Arabs and Yemenis and to be able to be at the Arab National Museum, which is something I heard about in high school, it felt really warm and made me feel really comfortable. I could go back and forth in English and Arabic. You’re right, typically I have these audiences who don’t understand Arabic and especially when I was able to recite some of the poetry and seeing the reaction of the people who understood it in Arabic. I try my best to translate, but there are always things that are lost in translations, some of the feelings, emotions. I think it’s always amazing with being able to recite certain words, this is something that was said 500 years ago, the exact words in a moment in time, to be able to recite that, it made feel like I’m part of this chain of people who came before me.

As an immigrant, you grew up with your feet in two worlds, not unlike a lot of the community here in Metro Detroit. In the Arab-American and immigrant communities, there’s sometimes a sense that people’s voices aren’t heard or acknowledged. What would you say to a kid here who might be growing up similar to how you did?

One of the main people who I would hope to read my book are young immigrant kids from Arab countries, from Latin countries, wherever they may be from, and I hope they can find themselves in those pages because I hope that they can see themselves outside that box that society puts them in, that they’re not limited, that people can’t define them and that they can choose their own narratives. I think that one of the saddest things in the world is when young kids aren’t allowed to dream and for me growing up it was a very difficult reality and society put a lot of pressure on me to fit that box. For a long time, I didn’t know if I was being too idealistic, and I would ask myself if should I just conform, should I just follow the practical safe route. But I think this country’s very unique where you can actually… It’s hard to see if my story could have happened somewhere else. Dave says the American Dream is always alive but always under threat and so I think that’s an accurate way of looking at it. We live in a society in a country now where young people of color, immigrants are told that they’re not bringing much to this country and that they need to vet immigrants. I don’t know what kind of vetting they wanna do, how do you define what’s a good person or not? How to define cultural uniqueness and creativity. But for young kids, my advice is just to find your calling, not your career and don’t let anyone define you, you can make your own destiny, you can create your own paths in life and you are uniquely positioned to do that. You speak two languages, you’re already ahead of the game. You are a part of two different worlds. One of the things about this book is the idea that there are people who are bridges between countries that produce and those that consume. I think that people like me, young people of color they can become really wonderful bridges and really bring much more to this country. This country needs a lot to make the world a better place.

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How have things changed with the production process since you started your work in Yemen? From what I read, there wasn’t a streamlined process in place for picking the berries, for example. Previously farmers were picking any color berry they came across… Their pay, they really weren’t paid fairly at all, so how have things changed within your network of farmers and what impact did that have?

Let me first ask you a question because of a word you used, berries. Did you learn a lot from reading the book? Did you know that coffee came from cherries before?

I didn’t even think about it. The way that it was all described in the book was just really clear, but not over your head. I cover food and I’ll write about wine every now and then and there’s kind of this snobbery or this language that people in that world use that feels inaccessible and so I definitely appreciated from the book how it was described.

That’s so good to hear you say that. We’re so disconnected from where our food comes from and that’s really a bad thing because if you don’t know the realities of the people who produce it, and with the lack of transparency, unfortunately, those producers can be exploited so it’s really heartwarming to hear you say that. That’s what I love about Dave, he came in as an outsider and the way he’s able to talk about coffee. In the coffee community, we can get carried away, start talking about varietals and genetics and flavor notes and all these things and people kind of fall asleep.

To your question though, it’s really nice seeing our farmers now. A lot of families used to rely financially on relatives who lived in the cities but because of the war, it’s targeting the economic infrastructure of the country so most of those jobs are gone. So now a lot of people are going back to the villages and the farmers now are really the breadwinners. It’s been great paying for weddings and medical surgery or college tuitions. I get messages from our farmers on WhatsApp and it makes me feel like I’m doing something positive with my life to impact people’s lives. At the same time, I do feel that sometimes when I see the tremendous amounts of suffering in this country, it’s a small dent with what I do so I go back and forth with this, but I hope I can continue what I do.

(Alkhanshali’s Mokha Foundation was created to provide the tools needed for Yemenis to go from relying on humanitarian aid to realizing economic self-sufficiency. For more information, go here.)

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DSC08068Do you see your work setting a larger trend in Yemeni coffee?
Yeah, typically when one person does something, the whole village follows. So that’s really great, as long as they have the right mindset. I’ve seen people in with the idea of like money signs and they don’t last long. If you’re looking for money, it’s not the best route. But if you’re looking for a life with meaning and impact and doing something positive, it’s really rewarding in that sense. I really like Qahwah House in Dearborn, I was so happy and inspired when I learned about it. I don’t have a retail space, so I work with roasters and coffee shops around the world and so to see a Yemeni do that and create this wonderful gateway, it’s like a cultural hub where you can come and experience the culture. I think that food is a really wonderful way to experience a culture. So they’re doing a great job with that.

What’s next?
One of the things I learned in business, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, so just fail fast and pivot. But it’s really hard to try to manage your focus, to focus on that one thing. For me, this book tour, my goal is to educate people and help them fall in love with a country they probably didn’t know much about and if they knew something about it, it’s probably not that great. And the second is to educate them on coffee, why this is an incredible drink that you can impact someone’s life by the way you purchase it. As consumers, you have much more power than you think. When you buy that cup of coffee you have the ability to uplift someone, rather than exploit them. So for me, continue with the story, continue talking about Yemen and continue talking about coffee and hopefully continue my project in Yemen and being able to scale and work with more farmers and connecting people through coffee, whether it’s in Yemen with farmers who need to make more money or people here in the West, during such a divided time and think coffee’s a wonderful way for us to build community and to move forward as a people and to build bridges and not walls.

(All photos by Rizwan Lokhandwala. Check out more of his work on camera on Instagram @naaksaafkur)

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

 

 

 

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is the co-founder and head chingona of Tostada Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit and specializes on the intersection of food, identity, and culture.

Find her on Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!