As a commodity in the United States, coffee has gone through three waves. In the early 20th century, with the advent of mass production and vacuum packaging, the first wave arrived. Think of those old ridged tins of Folgers, Hill Bros., and Maxwell House. The founding of Peet’s, in 1966, and Starbucks, in 1971, marked the beginning of the second wave. The new brands improved roasting practices, used higher-quality beans, and popularized coffee shops. The third wave, in pursuit of yet better coffee and more ethical relationships with growers, came in the 21st century with Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown. They brewed each cup individually and could tell you exactly where the beans came from. With each wave, the price of coffee rose, until, in 2016, you could buy a cup at Blue Bottle in San Francisco for $16.
Those beans came from Yemen. Mokhtar Alkhanshali hurriedly gathered the first samples in 2014, as Houthis from the northwest of the country captured territory en route to their takeover of the capital, Sana’a, which would instigate the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition to start a war that, as of now, has subjected millions of Yemeni civilians to famine and cholera.
Alkhanshali’s story is astonishing, and it has inspired Dave Eggers’s new book, The Monk of Mokha. On February 24, 2016, while bombs fell in Yemen, Alkhanshali and Eggers watched from the roof of the Infinity, a high-end residential skyscraper in San Francisco, as Alkhanshali’s ship, carrying his first container of Yemeni beans, came in.
Eggers makes the ideological stakes clear in the book’s prologue. Alkhanshali’s story, Eggers tells us, is about “the American Dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat.” People like Alkhanshali “embody this nation’s reason for being, a place of radical opportunity and ceaseless welcome.” He concludes his patriotic, anti-Trump jeremiad with a distinctly Bay Area flourish, insisting that, as a nation, we are united “by irrational exuberance, by global enterprise on a human scale, by the inherent rightness of pressing forward.” In other words, Eggers offers his book as a paean to the worldview of liberal Democrats: pro-immigration, anti-racist, technocratic, culturally chic neoliberalism.
He found a perfect protagonist in Alkhanshali. Like a regular Ragged Dick, Alkhanshali grows up in the Tenderloin (“the city’s most troubled neighborhood”), where he becomes “a fast learner, a fast talker, a corner-cutter.” To reform him, his parents send him to his grandfather in Yemen, who teaches him responsibility. He returns to the Bay and finds work at Banana Republic and Macy’s. His exposure to the clientele opens his mind to the possibility of climbing socioeconomic classes.
But after some bad luck, he ends up working as a doorman at the Infinity, where he passes the time reading Das Kapital and The Wretched of the Earth. One day he notices the statue across the street of a Yemeni man drinking coffee. Something clicks in his head. He learns that coffee originated in Yemen. He makes it his American Dream to become a coffee importer and to restore Yemeni coffee to its former greatness.
EggerS’s hero walks in the footsteps of many emissaries of imperialism before him, yet is oblivious to their legacy.
For most of the second half of the book, Eggers describes Alkhanshali’s life-threatening journeys through wartime Yemen. After bringing his first samples to the United States, Alkhanshali returns to Yemen to advise his farmers and establish a processing plant. This is late 2014. Increasingly, the Houthis are taking control of the country. Alkhanshali laughs it off until, at 3 a.m. on March 26, 2015, the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition begins bombing Sana’a, where he lives. The coalition bombs the airport. Alkhanshali is trapped. Local militias capture him, thinking he is Houthi-aligned, and he is lucky to survive. Finally, he makes it out on a small motorboat to Djibouti. He rents a room in the Infinity. Long gone are his days in the lobby with Marx and Fanon. The shipment arrives, he is fêted in the press, and Blue Bottle sells his $16 cup.
For Eggers: why write a triumphant rags-to-riches tale of American mobility against the backdrop of the war in Yemen?
To pose the question this way is to invite the threat, in the mind of my own reader, of boredom, or annoyance, or sadness. I suppose these are the feelings the book inspired in me. Do we really need to remind Eggers that American economic mobility—the American Dream—is a myth deployed on behalf of increasing wealth inequality? I bore myself. The particular provenance of the book’s ethos is the self-congratulatory moralism of start-up culture. (This from the author of the internet dystopia The Circle.) Early on, Alkhanshali receives what Eggers calls “sage advice”: if he wants to help Yemen, he should start a “real business” where “education about Yemen will come through customers’ engagement with the product.” He does a SWOT analysis and drafts his vision and his mission and his core values. He researches the market. He acquires investors.
Toward the end, Eggers acknowledges, “It was difficult sometimes to see all this as essential. People were dying in Yemen. The country was collapsing, and in his San Francisco high-rise, Mokhtar was waking up every morning at 4:00 a.m. to call Sana’a about coffee.” Why is it worth it to keep going? Eggers answers: “There was a lot of money at stake.”
Alkhanshali’s story is wildly improbable. Must it also be so predictable?
In October 2016, the Saudis dropped a US-made bomb on a funeral in Sana’a, killing more than 140 people, including the mayor and several other high-profile figures who were negotiating between the Saudis and the Houthis.1 Research has shown that the Saudi-led coalition has targeted hundreds of farms, markets, food storage sites, and fishing boats in Houthi-controlled areas, starving people to death.2 The Houthis, for their part, have restricted access to water, food, and medical supplies.3 It is a confounding war. Almost no journalists report on it.4 Depending on their ideological commitments, some analysts describe it as a civil war, others as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is difficult to discern what is happening, what is at stake. This only made me want to know more.
The Monk of Mokha provides the basic contours. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for decades, was ousted in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Houthis took advantage of the resulting power vacuum and gained control of the country. The Saudis, suspecting that Iran was backing the Houthis, formed a coalition and went to war. Meanwhile, the United States intensified its drone bombing in the name of attacking al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But for the most part, the war serves as the backdrop for Alkhanshali’s adventures.
Eggers’s Yemen is familiarly Orientalist. Alkhanshali, an American abroad, is a charming huckster who, despite the occasional and comic faux pas, has little trouble bending Yemen’s superstitious women, provincial soldiers, snarling loan sharks, and wise old farmers to his will. He describes to them all his vision of a future Yemen thriving through coffee. He walks in the footsteps of many emissaries of imperialism before him, yet is oblivious to their legacy.
In a revealing passage toward the end of the book, as he attempts to flee wartime Yemen, Alkhanshali sees three US warships just “a few miles away.” His thought? “How much easier it would have been had the American government simply evacuated its own citizens.” But, of course, though it goes unmentioned, those warships are there to support the Saudis—Alkhanshali’s fantasy of rescue erases the role the United States is playing in the war.
Can Drones Have Ethics?
I turned, then, hopefully, to Isa Blumi’s Destroying Yemen, recently published by the University of California Press. Blumi, a professor at Stockholm University, writes prolifically about the Middle East and the Balkans. With this book, he aims to explain the current war by presenting a revisionist history of modern Yemen.
Blumi’s Yemen is radically different from Eggers’s. What is happening in Yemen is neither a civil nor a proxy war. Instead, it is the latest and most disastrous entry in the long history of fighting between the globalist oligarchy of finance capitalists who want to plunder Yemen’s wealth and the anti-imperialist Yemeni population. This seems at first a salutary correction to Eggers’s American Dream.
Blumi is at his best when detailing particular moments of Yemeni anti-imperialism. He describes, for example, how Yemenis developed a system of Local Development Associations in the 1970s that constituted an autonomous political economy, allowing Yemenis “to build roads, water wells, and schools” without recourse to the International Monetary Fund or even banks. Blumi’s thesis is that globalist financiers cannot abide Yemen’s independence and will not stop until the country succumbs to empire, no matter if it is destroyed in the process.
In this version of events, the Houthis, whom Blumi calls by the name of their political organization, AnsarAllah, are “morally secure” actors with no recourse but “to take direct action on behalf of an unrepresented people.” At his most ambitious, Blumi argues that Yemen has played a crucial if unrecognized role in shaping the modern world. This leads him to his rhetorically spirited conclusion: “Yemenis will prove to be the deadliest, unflagging enemy empire has ever known. And because Yemenis just will not succumb, this war will one day be the point to which empire forever changes and Saudi Arabia itself will disappear.” The globalist conspirators and their “cocaine-snorting bankers” have met their final match in Yemen.
The well-being of finance capitalists, the IMF, and the World Bank no doubt in part motivate the US–backed, Saudi-led coalition. But to present the war as an apocalyptic showdown between good anti-imperialists and an evil globalist cabal helps no one so much as the coalition Blumi purportedly opposes. We need an account of how exactly this war serves capital, not a conspiracy theory. We need evidence, not school-yard psychology. (Financiers, I imagine, do not want a Saudi-backed government in Yemen because Yemen’s recalcitrance makes them angry. Their job is to grow capital, and they have ample ideological resources to believe that free trade and privatization would be in Yemen’s best interest.)
Such dogmatism leads Blumi to preposterous caricatures and away from nuanced analysis. When he mentions, late in the book, that the coalition and the Houthis are fighting over rich fisheries off the Yemeni coast, I badly want him to tell me more. I imagine he could provide a clear account of what is at stake with the fisheries if he bothered to analyze the World Bank report where he learned about them. But instead he collapses this detail into another example of the mustache-twirling evil of globalism—a morality tale filled with hyperbole so unearned that it inspires not Blumi’s hoped-for righteous indignation, but laughter and melancholy.
Can we ever know what is happening in Yemen? Ginny Hill’s Yemen Endures, published last year by Oxford University Press, presents a convincing account. Hill, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, worked as a journalist in Yemen. Her book relies on scholarly research, archival records, and interviews with central figures in Yemeni politics.
The story goes like this. Yemen is ostensibly a representative democracy where citizens elect the president and the members of the House of Representatives. But, in practice, the government under Saleh was ineffectual. True power resided in the 8 to 10 families whose support Saleh maintained through patronage: “oil services sector, food imports, telecoms licenses, banking and military procurement; hardly any sector of the economy was untouched by this principle of weighted patronage.” By 2011, many constituencies—the Houthis in the northwest, separatists in the south, an emergent moderate Islamic party, a new youth movement, tribes who felt they were not receiving adequate patronage—wanted reform or revolution, and they used the occasion of the Arab Spring to demand it.
The protesters forced Saleh to resign. He was replaced by his vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a weak leader who inspired confidence in nobody. The same 8 to 10 families controlled the country and its economy, though they battled internally for primacy. But the patronage system had for some years been coming apart, the Hadi regime lacked legitimacy, and the government was ripe to be overthrown. Of the fractured resistance, the Houthis proved most prepared to step into the power vacuum, so they did.
It is difficult to imagine a government in Yemen or anywhere else that could be against global enterprise and flourish, for no other reason than the coercive power of economic orthodoxy.
Why did the Saudis go to war against the Houthis? What is at stake? We are now in a position to understand why analysts would call this a civil war, a proxy war, or another chapter of imperialism. Diverse factions inside Yemen are fighting for control of the government, and they all split across a clear dividing line—those who control the economy and those who don’t. Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United States, want to keep Hadi in power and continue the patronage system. Yemen’s economic elites, as Blumi suggests, are hospitable to neoliberal reforms and are willing partners with the United States in its extensive use of drones in the country. Saudi Arabia and the United States dislike the idea of the Houthis, in particular, in power.
The Houthis had long fought the Saleh government because of its corruption and support for US drone bombing. They embarrassed Saleh by protesting loudly and calling for “death to the US” just as Saleh was trying to cozy up to the United States as an ally in the War on Terror. Saleh, in turn, depicted the Houthis as extremists, who, as Zaydis—Shia Muslims—received support from Iran. Saleh’s characterizations are the origin of the vision of this as a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At first, the Iranian connection was just propagandistic speculation. It is more probable now, but to call the conflict a proxy war is to mischaracterize it on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition.
The war is good business for the United States. In May 2017, President Trump signed a $110 billion trade agreement with Saudi Arabia, with provisions for the sale of more weapons like the precise, laser-guided bomb, made by Raytheon, that the coalition dropped on the funeral in Sana’a in October 2016. This gives another meaning to Eggers’s vision of Americans united “by global enterprise on a human scale.”
Hill, like Blumi, sees the problem as bigger than Yemen, though she is circumspect and does not predict the fall of empire. She thinks that, until the structure of global finance changes, whoever governs Yemen next will be unable to withstand the temptation to profiteer. It is difficult to imagine a government in Yemen or anywhere else that could be against global enterprise—privatization and free trade—and flourish, for no other reason than the coercive power of economic orthodoxy.
Economic orthodoxy is another phrase for what Eggers calls “the inherent rightness of pressing forward.” As he would have it, we can now drink our coffee with the confidence that Yemeni farmers are earning a decent wage, all the while congratulating ourselves for learning about Yemen along the way. Meanwhile, lest we forget, millions of Yemenis are suffering from famine and one million have cholera. Eggers celebrates Alkhanshali, an American exception, at the expense of ignoring and abetting a massacre.
I, for my part, am having a pleasant morning in South Bend, Indiana. I have just finished my third cup of coffee. The beans are from a micro-lot in El Águila, Honduras—the country with the world’s highest murder rate. They have notes of lime and pecans. I ground them myself and brewed each cup individually. It was very delicious, indeed.
- Nicolas Niarchos, “How the US Is Making the War in Yemen Worse,” New Yorker, January 22, 2018. ↩
- Iona Craig, “Bombed into Famine: How Saudi Air Campaign Targets Yemen’s Food Supplies,” Guardian, December 12, 2017. ↩
- Iona Craig, “‘Before I Had Everything to Eat. Now It’s One Bite’: Yemenis’ Struggle for Survival,” Guardian, November 25, 2017. ↩
- Jared Malsin, “Why Almost No One’s Covering the War in Yemen,” Columbia Journalism Review, May 13, 2015. ↩