Mohka House

Yemen’s most gracious cultural ambassador to Oakland


Mohka House owner Hamza Ghalib steps behind the bar during rush hour to make his specialty, a Mohka House Latte.

You may know mocha as a chocolate-flavored coffee drink, but did you know that the name comes from Mohka, the old port city on the Red Sea coast of Yemen that gifted coffee to the world? You don’t have to travel far to explore this history. Just visit Mohka House, a new coffee shop serving authentic Yemeni coffee to Oaklanders and raising awareness of Yemen’s long-standing importance to coffee culture around the globe.

Located steps from the iconic intersection of MacArthur Boulevard and Fruitvale Avenue, Mohka House has established a social epicenter around the partaking of traditional Yemeni coffee and tea.

“We’re not just here to serve great coffee,” says owner Hamza Ghalib, who’s been an Oakland resident since he left Yemen at age 17. “We’re about getting people connected.”

Mohka House weaves its way into the heart and senses with an unapologetic Arab aesthetic—traditional and modern—that speaks of the beauty and values of Yemen. Spices wafting from traditional Yemeni drinks (each named after the province where it originated) spark a craving as warm lighting and songful recitation of the Quran quiet chaos. An image of the capital city, Sanaʽa, displays the architectural landscape with towers beaming at the golden time of day, while a hand-painted mural with sand-colored strokes narrates the life of a fishing village. Traditional fabrics clothe communal seating, and large, candle-warmed teapots are available for friends to share.


Hamza Ghalib’s younger brother, Yas Ghalib (to Hamza’s right), loves the environment at Mohka House. “Customers are friendly with each other here,” he says. “It’s diverse; you don’t see that often in shops. Especially after COVID hit, people want to self-isolate, but not here. We’re doing the opposite: We’re getting people together.”


The attentiveness to hospitality here mirrors how coffee is grown, harvested, and dried in Haraz, a tropical and mountainous village in Yemen poised at the highest elevation on the Arabian Peninsula. The entire process of getting your coffee from farm to cup takes nearly two years of communal labor (plus a week for export, a day for roasting, and some minutes for brewing).

“When we pour our coffee, we’re pouring years of hard work, laughter, conversations happening in the background, and centuries of tradition by farmers who care for their crops as their own children,” says Ghalib.

“We’re talking about history here,” he adds in one of our many conversations about the lesser-known history of his homeland and how the course of time brought him to this very moment.

Ghalib says it’s debated whether the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia or Yemen, but it was Yemen, with its critical ports on the coast of the Red Sea, that cultivated and mass produced the crop and became a dominant exporter of coffee throughout Europe, Asia, and beyond dating as far back as the Ottoman Empire.


Left: Enjoy Za’atar Mana’eesh from local Arab bakery Reem’s with your latte. Right: Many Mediterranean countries have their own version of baklava. These mini Turkish pistachio baklava feature perfect layers of nuts, filo pastry, and honey. Walnut options are also available.


Ghalib first dreamt of importing Yemeni coffee to the Bay Area in 2014, a dream that would take nearly ten years to come to fruition. The idea first took root as he tasted the inauthenticity of Yemeni-labeled coffee at the large corporate coffee shops he frequented while pursuing law in Berkeley. “It seemed like a good idea because Yemen has a long history of being rich in natural resources. Whether talking about its sea life, coffee, or fruits such as mango, watermelon, and papaya, Yemen produces a large market in the world,” he says.

Ghalib felt proud at the possibility of importing the best product of his country’s soil to the United States. But by the time all the thoughts started falling into place, the attacks happened.

In 2015, a Saudi Arabia–led coalition began air strikes on Sanaʽa and imposed a naval blockade on Yemen after a proxy war erupted. Airports and outlets were shattered, and everything went on a total lockdown. Getting to Yemen was nearly impossible, and exporting one pound of coffee would cost an exorbitant $55–$65, making it impossible to turn profits. “The idea didn’t die, but it faded, given that we went into war and the people, whether in the northern or southern part of Yemen, were activated into survival mode,” Ghalib adds.

Three years later, the idea was reignited when Ghalib visited Dearborn, Michigan, and saw how Yemen-imported coffee was revolutionizing coffee shops across the state, a hub for Arab Americans since the 1950s when large numbers migrated there to work in the auto industry. Ghalib was inspired to bring a glimpse of that coffee renaissance to the Bay Area.

The global pandemic would cause havoc in the food and beverage industry for another three years, but Ghalib was undeterred. The longing for Yemenis to be positively recognized fueled him, especially as negative narratives rose in the era of the Muslim Ban.

“There’s been an invisible contribution that Yemenis have made for decades, partially due to the U.S. involvement in homelands that often leads to the erasure of culture,” says Sunaina Maira, a regular customer and professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis whose research focuses on Arab and Muslim studies.

Yemen’s agricultural impact has a long-standing history closer to home than many realize. In the 1960s, California saw a seasonal migration of Yemenis as agribusiness owners shipped workers directly from Yemen to work in the fields. They were concentrated in the Central Valley and organized with the United Farm Workers union. “Nagi Daifallah was a Yemeni Marxist labor organizer alongside Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong, and [Daifallah] was assassinated in 1973 by the police during the grape boycott as a UFW leader. Yemenis have been part of this radical movement of social organization in California for a long time,” says Maira.

Today, Mohka House is part of the surging wave of Yemeni coffee shops in the Bay Area and the country at large, all asserting Yemen’s contributions to public culture. “We’re finally able to export,” says Ghalib, “and people are excited.” Despite a decade of denied contribution, Ghalib is now among a large group of Yemeni coffee shop owners who are telling their stories through a coffee revolution. Because if there’s one thing Yemen will never fall short of, it’s overcoming.


Left: Team member Abdulrahman Basha pours coffee out of a delah, a traditional Yemeni coffee pot. Right: Musk shape with pistachio, very berry vegan cake, raisin croissant, and Greek yogurt cherry danish are just a few of the many decadent pastries available to accompany your drink.


With a decade of looming hurdles and sociopolitical narratives to overcome, one could question Ghalib’s persistence in bringing this coffee shop to life. But walking the streets of the lower Dimond and Fruitvale, where neighboring small businesses from all over the globe represent their countries proudly, it’s obvious that Mohka House is a perfect fit for the neighborhood. The longing for home and the constant attempts to recreate it, to finally feel like one belongs, is a journey worthy of pursuit.

Oakland is a place of the people. It’s a place of heart, a cultural hub, a place of revolution, and for many, the first place in the United States they have called home. For Ghalib, it was love at first sight.

“I can’t see myself living anywhere else,” he says. “It’s 510 for life, baby!”


Left: Khaliat alnahl (honeycomb bread) is a traditional Yemeni pastry named for its honeycomb shape. The fluffy, pull-apart rolls are stuffed with soft cream cheese, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds, drizzled with honey, and best enjoyed with Yemeni tea. Right: This pot of Yemeni tea at Mohka House holds a black tea spiced with cardamom and nutmeg. Customers can order a single cup or various sizes of pots for sharing.


July marks the one-year anniversary of Mohka House’s opening, but the Mohka House family is celebrating so much more than their anniversary. “It’s been amazing seeing ecstatic reactions to this place open, hearing people ask where Yemen is located, learning and experiencing the culture,” Ghalib says. “How can you describe the feeling of witnessing people love your culture and wanting to come back for more?”

Ghalib dreams for Mohka House to become a landmark in Oakland and ultimately a place where anyone can feel at home, where doors are open to all, where no one is looked at differently for their color or background. He dreams of it as a place where the values of his own upbringing are practiced: to look out for one another, to respect our elders, to maintain family togetherness. “That’s the environment I strive to create and thus far, alhamdulillah, we’ve experienced nothing but the best from our customers,” Ghalib says.

People all over are receiving an overdue introduction to Yemeni coffee and recognizing the influence of Yemeni culture on our everyday lives, and Mohka House is Yemen’s most gracious cultural ambassador to Oakland. It’s with this tiny coffee bean, distinguished for its flavor profile of spices, fruit, tobacco, and—most prominent—chocolate, that Mohka House is overwriting the narrative of Yemen’s existence in the world. ♦

Mohka House | 2139 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland | Find on Instagram @mohkahouse