On a business trip to Yemen in 2015, Californian Mokhtar Alkhanshali was stranded when civil war broke out. Abandoned by his government and the airport bombed, he was forced to find his own way home …
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN
BY: DAVE EGGERS
In the spring of 2015, I met Mokhtar Alkhanshali outside the Blue Bottle Coffee headquarters in Oakland, California. He had just returned from Yemen, having narrowly escaped with his life. An American citizen, Mokhtar was abandoned by his government and left to evade Saudi bombs and Houthi rebels. He had no means to leave. The airports had been destroyed and the roads out of the country were impassable. There were no evacuations planned, no assistance provided. The United States state department had stranded thousands of Yemeni Americans, who were forced to devise their own means of fleeing a blitzkrieg – tens of thousands of US-made bombs dropped on Yemen by the Saudi air force. The way Mokhtar escaped was brazen and astonishing, but was only the last in a series of remarkable leaps of courage and self-invention that Mokhtar had made in a few short years. He had grown up poor, in a Yemeni-American family of nine living in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district – in many ways the city’s most troubled neighbourhood. While trying to get a college degree, he took a job as a doorman in a residential high-rise called the Infinity. It paid adequately but he was uninspired, and he spent his days vibrating, expecting great things of himself but unsure what shape his dreams would take.
One day a friend told him that across the street from his desk at the Infinity was an enormous statue of what appeared to be a Yemeni man with his hands raised overhead, drinking from a cup of coffee. This seemed to be the kind of sign he was looking for. It turned out that the statue was the old symbol of Hills Brothers coffee, their headquarters having been in downtown San Francisco for decades. The statue began a feverish journey of discovery, on which Mokhtar learned that coffee had first been cultivated in Yemen, and that for centuries the port of Mokha was the centre of the world’s coffee trade. The Yemeni coffee trade had fallen on hard times, though – it was known now for its unreliable quality and the few remaining farmers still growing coffee were largely aimless and impoverished.
With no experience as a farmer or importer, Mokhtar flew to Yemen, reconnected with his extended family, and visited all 32 regions of Yemen where coffee was still cultivated. He met with farmers and agricultural collectives, and made plans to improve their crop – and their fortunes – by vastly improving Yemeni coffee’s quality and reintroducing it to the world’s speciality coffee market. And he was well on his way to improbable success when the Houthis swept down from the north of the country, overtaking the capital, Sana’a. When the Saudis began a bombing campaign to oust them from power, Mokhtar knew it was time to leave.
At 3am on 26 March 2015, Mokhtar was shaken awake. The building was vibrating. He was in Sana’a, at the headquarters of Rayyan, a coffee company founded by another American, Andrew Nicholson. The rattle brought him to the roof, where he saw Faj ’Attan mountain on fire. Houthi anti-aircraft fire striped the sky. Fires plumed around the city. It was the end of the world.
Mokhtar went online and confirmed it was the Saudis. F-15s were bombing Houthi positions all around Sana’a. Every few minutes there was another strike. The ceiling shook and dust rained down.
Mokhtar called his mother. “I’m OK,” he said. She begged him to leave the capital, but going anywhere in the middle of a bombing campaign seemed unwise. Mokhtar was in a high-density residential neighbourhood of Sana’a, and from all the news he was getting it seemed that the Saudis were after the Houthis’ military positions and munitions dumps only.
He told his mother not to worry and hung up. He tried to sleep. He counted the air strikes. Fifty, 60. He lost track at 80.
At 5am, he heard the call to prayer. Then another. Competing calls echoed through the city. He went out on to the street, determined to wait out the last hour of darkness at the mosque. On his way, between the black silhouettes of the buildings, he saw the bright white stripes of anti-aircraft fire.
Inside the mosque, a few dozen men were gathered as the bombing continued. The rug was grey with the ceiling’s plaster. The imam performed a long supplication, and the congregants prayed as if living their last minutes. There couldn’t be so many military targets in Sana’a, Mokhtar thought. They must be hitting civilians and this must really be war. When the imam asked God to forgive the sins of those present, the men around him wept, and Mokhtar knew he might die there, that at any moment a bomb would rip through the roof.
Had it been a good life? Mokhtar thought. He wasn’t sure. It was incomplete. He should have started all this coffee business sooner, he thought. Had he begun a year earlier, he would have at least done something, finished something, before the bombs rained down. Now he would die in a mosque. Maybe his family might find some comfort in that. Another bomb struck, now closer.
The men around him stopped crying. They had submitted to their fate. Mokhtar did, too. Nothing was within his control, so he lost all fear and worry. He felt a weight leave his shoulders. He would die, he would not die. It had nothing to do with him. He could run from the mosque and die. He could stay in the mosque and die.
Or maybe he wouldn’t die. He and the congregants stayed an hour, until finally the quiet between bombs spread and became whole. At daybreak it was over. When Mokhtar and the rest of the men left the mosque, the sun had begun to rise and the city was bathed in an eerie pink light, the air bright with dust.
Mokhtar, feeling a new and encompassing peace, walked from the mosque to the mill, sure that nothing would ever frighten him again. It was as if he had died already.
Later that morning, he went back to the travel agent. He told her he wanted two tickets out of Sana’a. He and Andrew had to get to the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference. “What are you talking about?” the travel agent said. “There’s no airport.”
The Saudis had destroyed it. No flights could come in or out. Mokhtar went to the mill. He and Andrew chewed khat.
“It was closed during the Arab Spring, too,” Andrew said. “It’ll reopen.”
Mokhtar checked the US state department website, expecting to find information about an organised evacuation for American citizens. There was nothing of the kind. Every day, the state department offered vague indications that Yemeni Americans should find passage out of the country by any means available.
There was recent precedent for the US state department helping its own citizens evacuate from a foreign country at war. In 2006, the Pentagon and state department helped 15,000 Americans leave Lebanon during the war between Israel and Hezbollah.
But this was different. Given the presence of al-Qaida and Islamic State in Yemen, the US decided it could not risk a large evacuation. They had no embassy or staff on the ground, thus had no effective way of screening all the prospective passengers on a plane or ship. They deemed the prospect of unintentionally bringing a terrorist into the US too great a risk. They decided to leave American citizens, stuck in Yemen, to their own devices.
An official notice from the state department said: “There are no plans for a US government-coordinated evacuation of US citizens at this time. We encourage all US citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely. US citizens wishing to depart should do so via commercial transportation options when they become available.”
This led to the creation of a website, StuckInYemen.com, which documented the plight of those remaining in Yemen. The site was supported by American Muslim advocacy groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Asian Law Caucus. The site grew to include a register of 700 Americans hoping their government would provide a way out of Yemen.
Under pressure from Arab-American civil rights groups, a state department spokesman, Jeff Rathke, explained that those Americans remaining in Yemen had made their own bed and now they must lie in it. Because they had ignored long-standing warnings from the American government, he implied, this was on them. “For more than 15 years the state department has been advising US citizens to defer travel to Yemen, and we have been advising those US citizens who are in Yemen to depart,” he said.
At a press conference, another spokesperson, Marie Harf, referred vaguely to escape “opportunities” for Americans.
One reporter asked her for clarity. “What are those opportunities?” he asked. “Swim?”
Mokhtar weighed his options. He’d heard rumours about freighters shipping livestock and people between Mokha and Djibouti. Online, Mokhtar found that the port of Mokha was more or less functioning. It was being fought over by the Houthi and government forces – but ships were leaving regularly.
He called Andrew.
“You want to take a boat from Mokha?” Andrew asked, incredulous.
“We get to Djibouti and fly to Addis,” Mokhtar said.
Without better options, Andrew agreed. Mokhtar called the US embassy in Djibouti, expecting nothing, but reached a human. He asked, hypothetically, if he and another American were to get passage across the Red Sea, and were able to make it to Djibouti by boat, would they be received by the US embassy and helped in their return to America? The embassy representative, a friendly woman whose pragmatism was emboldening, confirmed they would.
“We won’t be put in some refugee camp?” Mokhtar asked.
“No, no,” she said. “If you make it here, we’ll help you in any way we can.”
Mokhtar and Andrew decided they’d go on Friday, after jumma (noon prayers). Violence was less likely on the Islamic holy day, they assumed.
They arrived in Mokha by early evening on Friday carrying suitcases containing precious coffee samples acquired at great cost. Mokhtar had named his company after Mokha, and had for years been enthralled by its history. But this was his first time seeing it. The road into the town was potholed and surrounded by crumbling stone dwellings, many abandoned. The fabled port had once been one of the most important in the world, but all that remained were some 15,000 impoverished souls. The city had fallen on hard times.
There was one functioning hotel. When Mokhtar and Andrew walked in, they found a chaotic scene. Everyone who wanted to get out of Yemen through Mokha was there – Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalis. At the front desk, the clerk was charging about five times what a room would cost on a normal day. But Mokhtar and Andrew had no choice. They paid their money and went to their room.
Mokhtar called a contact named Mahmoud, who said he could arrange passage on a ship the next day. Mahmoud arrived at the hotel an hour later and confirmed they could take a Somali cargo ship that usually brought livestock to Mokha, but had recently been converted to take people out of Yemen. The next day, or maybe Sunday, the ship would take 150 evacuees, and a few tons of onions. He’d make sure they had room for Mokhtar and Andrew. The trip to Djibouti City would take anywhere from 15 to 20 hours.
They woke at sunrise and contacted Mahmoud.
“There’s a problem,” he said, and Mokhtar knew the rest.
Nothing was simple in Yemen. If someone said they could get you on a boat, that was just the beginning of the conversation. It was never as easy as buying a ticket and getting on that boat. Mahmoud was saying there was no fuel and the ship wasn’t leaving that day.
“When is it leaving?” Mokhtar asked.
“Hard to say,” Mahmoud said.
Mokhtar asked Mahmoud about other possibilities. Mahmoud mentioned the outside chance of hiring what he called a viper boat. On it, the trip would take five to six hours to Djibouti, he said. Mokhtar pictured a speedboat, the sort favoured by Caribbean drug dealers.
“I’ll look into it,” Mahmoud said.
Mokhtar knew what that meant. He had time to see the al-Shadhili Mosque. He’d been thinking about it ever since they’d arrived. It was the spiritual home of the original monk of Mokha, Shaykh Ali Ibn Omar Alqurashi al-Shadhili – the man who first brewed coffee, who built the coffee trade.
His guide was a local judge and historian, Adel Fadh. Short and middle-aged, with a gentle demeanour, he led Mokhtar into the mosque, a humble structure undergoing significant repairs. Built to honour Shaykh Ali, the mosque retained a vibrating spirituality. The Sufi monk had gone to Harar, married an Ethiopian woman and brought the coffee plant – which hadn’t been cultivated yet; it was still wild – back to Yemen. Here, in Mokha, he invented the dark brew now known as coffee. Local lore had it that he was responsible for Mokha’s ascendance to the centre of the coffee trade. It was he who introduced coffee to traders who came to Mokha, and who extolled its medicinal qualities.
The mosque was more than 500 years old, and had been repaired many times, Adel explained. But there was so little money to keep it up now. With Mokha so poor, and the country at war, he feared for the future of the mosque and the town.
“We can restore this port to greatness,” Mokhtar said. If he could get out of Yemen alive, and come back someday, he would see to it, he said. He had no idea how he would do it, but he felt obligated to give the judge some semblance of hope.
Adel, a guileless man, listened intently, and Mokhtar realised that all the workers in the mosque were listening, too. He spoke about the modern coffee trade, the rise of speciality coffee, the imminent supremacy of Yemeni coffee, how Mokha could thrive again.
Mokhtar’s phone rang. It was Mahmoud. He’d found a boat and captain who could make the trip. The pilot was a young man, about 30, and the boat itself was tiny, about 14ft long, just a flat-hulled skiff – this was no viper boat. It turned out Mahmoud had been trying to say “fibre boat”, not viper boat. Their escape vessel was a sorry thing, low and narrow, with a single Yamaha outboard motor. It looked as if it could be capsized by a tuna.
“We’ll get soaked in that thing,” Andrew noted.
They got back into the truck, looking for tarpaulins. They’d have to wrap the suitcases in the tarps and store them in the bottom of the boat to keep the coffee dry. At the beach, they were met by a pair of local police officers whose allegiance – to Houthis or the government – was unclear. Mokhtar pressed a bribe into their hands, and they were free to leave Mokha.
When they looked closer at the hired skiff, Andrew and Mokhtar laughed. Andrew had grown up on a lake in Louisiana, and this watercraft was smaller than the boats he’d used to go fishing. Could it really make it across the Red Sea? The man they’d hired to steer it seemed confident enough. He said he’d done it many times.
There was no extra motor. There was one paddle. There were no life vests. They had no idea if there were Saudi ships out there. Or if Saudi planes would attack a craft leaving the port. Or if the US navy was out there and might assume they were terrorists and blow them out of the water. There was also the possibility – probably greater than any other – that the captain would sell them to Somali pirates.
“Time to leave,” Mokhtar said.
They rolled the suitcases in the tarps and set them on the floor of the boat. While the captain was prepping the engine, Mokhtar and Andrew made a plan with their friends Ali and Ahmed, for any eventualities. Mokhtar and Andrew would call Ali and Ahmed when they got to the port of Djibouti. If they didn’t call within a designated time, that meant something had gone wrong, that they’d likely been sold to pirates. In that case, Ali and Ahmed were authorised to kidnap relatives of the captain. It was the Yemeni way.
On the beach, all of this was discussed with a mixture of seriousness and dark humour. Their suitcases lined the boat floor, and everything was ready. All this time, two small local kids, a boy and a girl, had been hovering. This wasn’t unusual in itself – there were always local kids who took an interest in any vessel leaving the shore – but now these two kids jumped into the boat.
“Who are these kids?” Mokhtar asked the captain. They were the children of a friend of his, the captain said. He was delivering them to their father in Djibouti. Mokhtar and Andrew briefly debated whether the presence of two children made the trip more perilous or less so.
“Let’s go,” Andrew said. They helped the captain push the skiff into shallow water. The captain got in and took his position at the outboard motor.
“You know what? I’ve never been in a boat,” Mokhtar said.
“You’ve never been in a boat like this?” Andrew asked.
“Never been in any boat,” Mokhtar said.
Mokhtar had grown up in San Francisco, surrounded by water – oceans and bays and rivers, estuaries and lakes. He’d spent years in Yemen, a country with a 12,000-mile coast. But he’d never been in a boat. He’d always wanted to, but the ferries and yachts and sailboats he’d seen throughout his youth seemed part of some unattainable other world.
His first experience with any watercraft was going to be in a tiny skiff leaving Yemen in the middle of a civil war.
He stepped in and they left the shore. They were carrying the first coffee to leave the port of Mokha in 80 years.
After Mokhtar returned from Yemen, American voters elected (or the electoral college made possible) the presidency of a man who had promised to exclude all Muslims from entering the country – “until we figure out what’s going on”. After his inauguration, one year ago today, Donald Trump made repeated efforts to ban travel to the United States by citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations. On this list was Yemen, a country more misunderstood than perhaps any other.
“I hope they have wifi in the camps,” Mokhtar said to me after the election. It was a grim joke making the rounds in the Muslim American community, based on the presumption that Trump will, at the first opportunity – if there is a domestic terror incident perpetrated by a Muslim, for instance – propose the registration or even internment of Muslims in America. When he made the joke, Mokhtar was wearing a T‑shirt that read Make Coffee, Not War.
Mokhtar is both humble before the history he inhabits and irreverent about his place in it. But his story is an old-fashioned one. It’s plainly the story of the American dream, which is very much alive and very much under threat. Mokhtar Alkhanshali represents millions of US citizens who maintain strong ties to the countries of their ancestors and who, through entrepreneurial zeal and dogged labour, create indispensable bridges between the developed and developing worlds, between nations that produce and those that consume.