A Chat with Dave Eggers’ Latest Subject: Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Mokhtar Alkhanshali/Photograph by Ebby Amir

Editor's Note:

Eggers and Alkhanshali will be in conversation during the following tour dates:

Feb. 11 at 7:30pm, Fishman Auditorium at BAM, Brooklyn, NY

Feb. 12 at 7:30pm, Free Library of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

Feb. 13 at 7:00pm, Sixth & I Synagogue, Washington, DC

Feb. 14 at 7:00pm, First Parish Church, Cambridge, MA

Feb. 15 at 7:30pm, Mark Taper Auditorium, Los Angeles, CA

Feb. 16 at 7:00pm, Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle, WA

April 16 at the Pen World Voices Festival, New York, NY


Alkhanshali will speak at the following venues solo:

Feb. 20 at 10:00am, Zendesk, San Francisco, CA

March 8 at 7:30pm, Tipping Point Book Club, Canton, MI

March 9 at 7:00pm, Muslim Community of the Western Suburbs, Canton, MI

March 12 at 9:30am, South by Southwest, Austin, TX

A big blue bus is parked in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. It is now branded with the familiar logos of a verdant sun, leaf and lightbulb certifying it an environmentally-friendly green, but other than its solar panels, sustainably forested wood and hybrid generator—and the fact that today it’s dispensing $16 cups of imported coffee—this is your bookmobile of yore, launched in 19th century England as a horse-drawn “perambulating library” and gaining traction in our own country as a pre-war, WPA project. But today, it’s been hijacked by bestselling author Dave Eggers and his latest subject, Yemeni coffee impresario Mokhtar Alkhanshali.

Alkhanshali is, in fact, standing on the steps of City Hall, mere blocks away from his free-range childhood in the rough and tumble Tenderloin district that plays in Eggers book like a Steven Spielberg-directed Oliver Twist. The City Supervisor, borrowing Eggers latest title, has proclaimed today Monk of Mokha Day and now Alkhanshali—I’m just going to start calling him Mokhtar because everyone else does—is at the mic. And knowing San Francisco’s head librarian Luis Herrera, who fought hard for and won his city’s impressive seven-day library week, is in the crowd, the fast-talking Mokhtar can’t resist a play for clemency. “I said I may or may not owe the library a few books,” he relays on a call the following week, “so I asked him to give me amnesty.”

It’s something the 29-year-old is quite used to – both chasing the American dream here at home to deliver a coffee from his homeland, ranked number one by industry bible Coffee Review, to being chased himself when a Houthi coup at the beginning of 2015 interrupts his bean-grading tour of coffee’s birthplace, which has unfortunately also birthed a civil war that seals all exit points. Guns? Sure, but that’s nothing new for Mokhtar, having seen his first gun in our country at the tender age of 11. And the aforementioned fast-talking? It’s a bitch to transcribe, but he’s able to put one of his $16 cups of coffee into play to jive his way out of a hypothetical parking ticket. It’s also handy when you’re mistaken for Houthi by opposing forces still loyal to ousted president Abdrabnuh Mansour Hadi, blindfolded, and tossed in the back of a pickup, then casually informed, “We plan to kill you.”

Mokhtar’s story has all the makings of a hyper-caffeinated, big-screen iteration and the rate at which Eggers’ books are turned into movies, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. But our discussion of casting is also the first time that Mokhtar becomes shy. “I haven’t thought that far,” he begs off, “I’m still trying to get used to the fact that there’s a book about my life, but a lot of people who have reviewed the book have mentioned it would make a good motion picture. I don’t really know who I want to play me. I guess as it gets closer, Dave and I will talk about it. What do you think?”

Oddly, we both go South Asian and streety. I suggest Aziz Ansari and Mokhtar adds that “someone said Riz Ahmed. They said, you know, you’re hip-hop. Aziz is great at what he does, but I don’t know. I’m not in that world.” Hip-hop, on the other hand, finds Mokhtar already working the one-name thing and readily able to supply the tagline “do or die” when his old Brooklyn neighborhood of Bed-Stuy is mentioned. So perhaps Ansari, with his DJ-accompanied, alter-ego Randy “with eight a’s” or Brit Ahmed with his Riz MC rapping tag are at least a step in the right direction. Hip-Hop, in fact, got Mokhtar together with Eggers in the first place. They had a mutual friend named Wajahat Ali who was working on a pilot with Eggers for HBO called “MJ.” “This was about six years ago,” Mokhtar remembers, “I was young. The pilot was about a cop who was going to be Yemeni so Wajahat brought me on as a consultant to make sure it was an accurate portrayal of the Yemeni community. It never got picked up.”

Luckily, the literary journal McSweeney’s that Eggers founded published the first half of the pilot wherein MJ is described as “Muslim. Yemeni. American. Cop. Badass.” The thirty-year-old detective sounds very much like Mokhtar. “He drives a Mustang,” the character breakout continues, “listens to Kanye, eats Pakistani food, and hates hummus.” Perhaps Mokhtar should have put down the Kanye and picked up a copy of Publisher’s Weekly. “When I first met Dave,” he admits, “I didn’t realize he was a famous person. He’s extremely low-key. He has a flip phone. He’ll never be recognized in the street.” Mokhtar left the consultancy spot feeling “like he was a local author and he was in my phone.”

When he returned from his harrowing journey to Yemen, the two reunited. “That’s when he started talking to me about a book,” Mokhtar recalls, “but I was going through a lot of personal things and I wasn’t ready for a book. I told him no. I wasn’t interested.” A funny thing happened on Mokhtar’s next trip to the airport. He saw a copy of Eggers’ 2013 novel The Circle prominently displayed in the airport bookshop. “I started to warm up to the idea,” Mokhtar laughs, “he’s a big deal, but when I told a friend of mine, I still called him David Edgars.” It’s hard to know which moniker the 47-year-old best-selling author would find more egregious. “I’ve always known Dave as a friend,” Mokhtar says, “but now I have this other relationship with him and writing this book brought us a lot closer.”

“Our stories are our most intimate and personal possessions,” Mokhtar continues of his escape from Yemen, “and if it were someone other than Dave, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. A lot of the book, especially that last third, is very intense. Those are very traumatic moments. I was talking to Dave a few weeks after I got back and he had the foresight to start backwards while things were still fresh in my mind. It was very therapeutic. There are over 100-hours of recordings. Going into the pain and talking out those moments, I don’t know, I can only say Dave is a very dear friend to me. And after the first sentence I read, I knew this is why he is an artist. He puts you in the moment, you can really feel it. I didn’t really get the chance to look it over while he was writing it, but I trust Dave. I know this man. I traveled with him. I’ve lived with him. We have the same underlying principals. For instance, when Trump got elected, we didn’t know that was going to happen when we first started this project, but when the travel ban happened, Dave texted me and was like are you at the airport? I was there and so was he so we have the same activism and principals.”

And while Yemen has always been part of Trump’s xenophobic ban, Mokhtar is good-natured enough about it to joke that it sucks to be Chad, always at the top of the alphabetized list. “As an American,” Mokhtar admits, “it’s kind of embarrassing when I travel and see people watching the news. They watching the president talk and tweet, and, I mean, the highest office of the land is being run by someone who was a reality TV star.” The ban also affects Mokhtar on his own soil. “It’s dependent on where I am,” he says, “I’m sure if I started walking around some of the red states, I’d probably experience it more, but sometimes I’ll do a speaking engagement and people will go, Wow, your english is so good! And I’m like, Yeah, I grew up here, bro.”

And indeed, that formative period figures prominently in the book. “One of my favorite parts is that chapter about my ghetto library,” Mokhtar remembers of the low shelf in the pantry of the Tenderloin one-bedroom his family occupied that held his most-prized possessions: books. “That chapter started with questions from Dave about my childhood. It was a very difficult reality. It was the inner city and it was hard to form a dream outside of that reality, but for me, books were my way to escape. In particular, Harry Potter. A lot of kids relate to this because we think we don’t belong and Hagrid will save us. As a kid, I had this feeling that there’s a destiny outside of this I might belong to and now, I walked into Barnes and Noble on our pub date and I see my book, the book that Dave wrote, on a shelf. People are walking by and picking it up. My life is casually there on display! I just hope that anyone who reads this, from inner city kid to coffee lover, gets the unifying narrative, especially in these divisive times.”