In The Name of The Father
Hani Farsi-in his capacity as philanthropist, arts patron, restaurateur, executive movie producer, hotelier and CEO of his family's London-based investment enterprise, Corniche Group-is fuelled by many things: compassion, enterprise, creative zeal and an unquenchable fervour for the power of storytelling, among others. But Farsi puts his multifaceted success down to the wholly edifying influence of one man, he tells Nick Scott.
'A child's education,' they say, 'begins at home.' It's a rather Pecksniffian adage, but Hani Farsi is a living testimony to its perspicacity. 'My father and I didn't talk about sport when I was a child,' he tells The Rake of his extraordinary childhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 'We'd talk about what Baron Georges-EugÃ¨ne Haussmann did for Paris as a planner, or the difference between an Ottoman minaret and a Mamluk minaret, or why Henry Moore was a genius. I was never bored - I loved it. It seeped into my mind. To this day, it all affects the way I see the world, it affects what projects I go into, and it affects how I approach them.' It's a crisp winter morning, and Farsi has invited The Rake to his Mayfair office - more of a museum, really, filled as it is with a collection of paraphernalia that testifies to its owner's diverse interests and remarkable life to date. You won't often find Baron Haussmann and Saturday Night Fever both referenced in the same profile feature, but it's justified here as, in one corner of the room, in a glass presentation cabinet, is the white suit worn by John Travolta in the 1977 disco-themed celluloid fondue. Next to it are John Lennon's original teashades, behind which a life-size photo of the Beatle's face, mid-gurn, has been placed mischievously. Elsewhere, the walls are filled with classic movie posters, a montage created from the actual deck of tarot cards featured in Live and Let Die (next to a printed script of the scene in which they feature), as well as a Banksy original, among other curios. Later, Farsi will pull the original script for the first Star Wars movie from a desk drawer, thus reducing myself and The Rake's founder Wei Koh to the level of tearful pilgrims beholding the Shroud of Turin. 'It's a leveller,' he says of the rich pop-cultural vault that sits on the first floor of Corniche's Mayfair HQ. 'Bankers and lawyers love it, entertainment people, actors, film producers love it - everyone who visits me here loves it.' Head off into a room to the right and, amongst even more memorabilia - coffee-table tomes, photos of Farsi with Presidents Carter and Clinton, the first £10 note that one of his restaurants took, fashioned into an origami butterfly - is a large portrait by contemporary British painter Jonathan Yeo, of the learned patriarch who made Farsi's childhood domicile such an edifying place in which to grow up. Dr. Mohammed Said Farsi was a former Lord Mayor of Jeddah, and a man of such aesthetic integrity that he travelled the world to meet with sculptors, painters and musicians before replanning the city according to his own meticulously constructed vision. To say that this donnish father figure has had a potent influence on his son would be a woeful understatement. Farsi's eyes visibly coruscate with pride as he describes the sheer integrity and acumen with which his father approached his work. 'When he became Mayor in 1972, the Yom Kippur war and the resulting embargo was about to raise the price of oil to USD40 a barrel, which in turn led to the first-ever boom in Saudi Arabia,' he says. 'So, the money he had to spend on the city increased tenfold. But he knew this wouldn't last forever, so when he was given a budget to build himself an office befitting the Mayor of the city, he decided, instead, to put that money into surfacing the roads and planning what we now have as the infrastructure - 'the city's main arteries', as he'd call it - of Jeddah.
'He just knew that if he did not make this happen, then construction of the city would be thwarted. So our house became his office. This meant that, as a child, I grew up seeing a city being planned in the family home - I was surrounded by press conferences, architects, artists... The discussions were always about function, beautification and so on, and this definitely became a part of my subconscious. Adding to this, my father was a great art collector.' Illuminating as Farsi's childhood was, his extraordinary life journey began in earnest when he left the Middle East at the age of 15 to attend an Episcopalian school in the northwest of Connecticut. The separation from his family was traumatic, and not just for Farsi. 'My father said to me, 'You don't know what a sacrifice it is for me to send you away - you're my only child!'' he says. 'Back then, I didn't know what he was talking about, but now that I'm a father, I understand what a sacrifice it was. It's another reason that I love him - very much. I hope that one day my kids can look up to me even half as much as I do to him.' As well as the distance from his childhood domicile, there was the culture shock to deal with. 'The day that I was dropped off was the first time I'd set eyes on the school,' he recalls. 'This was in 1983. It looked like it hadn't changed since 1952 - cars and fashion included. I was homesick, I was culturally sick - I felt that I was completely disconnected to everything I knew. There were no phones, and mail to and from Saudi Arabia moved at about the speed it did during the American Civil War. I didn't read or write English. I was the only Muslim there - or for a 100-mile radius, at least - and became friends with the only Jewish kid.' It sounds onerous, especially for an adolescent. Does he wish it had been different? 'No way. It taught me independence, self- reliance, the ability to move more effortlessly between different worlds. It helped me not to let my entire identity be tied up with my father's position, wealth or power - these things that can just come and go - and my life became non-reliant on the things that had traditionally made it easier. In fact, I still had three very happy years there, and I'm now a trustee of that school.'
Farsi would spend seven years altogether in DC before moving to London which, for the time being, remains his home city. 'I'd been coming here since the '70s, and I'd always liked what England stands for,' he says. 'It's culturally rich and, most importantly, it's cosmopolitan - I always want to feel that, when I walk into a room, I'm not dominated by one nationality. The fact that people from all backgrounds feel at home here gives me strength. Besides, I knew that if I ever went back to Saudi Arabia, I'd forever just be the son of Mohammed Said Farsi - an honour, but I'd never know if what I achieved was really my achievement.'
What he would go on to accomplish in the English capital is nothing short of remarkable. Farsi's first career move was prompted by what he describes as his 'great belief in the power of storytelling to change people, as well as entertain them'. Naturally, he took to London's rich theatre scene with zeal. 'One of the first plays I saw was a production of David Mamet's, Glengarry Glen Ross, which ran in a tiny theatre called Donmar Warehouse,' he recalls. 'It was very low-budget, but it was truly stunning, from the opening scene onwards. I was mesmerised. So, when I found out the production was closing due to lack of budget, I arranged to meet the people behind it. The artistic director was a young guy around my age called Sam Mendes. We hit it off and became good friends.' Mendes, who would go on to direct films including American Beauty, Skyfall and Revolutionary Road, related to him the figures necessary to keep the play open, to which Farsi replied, 'OK, this will be my gift to London. I'll give you the money on the condition that you don't release my name.' Naturally enough, Mendes asked why anonymity would be necessary. 'I said to him, 'The phrase 'young Saudi businessman' will turn into headlines that read 'young rich Arab'. It might detract from you, and from further funding you can get. Besides, I want to keep a low profile. Let's keep it anonymous.' Farsi went on to become a member of Donmar Warehouse's board of directors. With his backing, the same company went on to produce the play that spawned a thousand column inches and revived the Donmar's profile-David Hare's The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman, whose performance was memorably described in The Daily Telegraph as 'pure theatrical Viagra'.
Farsi continued to be involved in theatre productions, including the stage version of Closer - later made into a film starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts - before venturing into movies. Projects he has executive produced include 2009's charting of the creation of the State of Israel, The Time That Remains; 2012's super-smart thriller The Reluctant Fundamentalist; 2012's The Patience Stone, an off beat war film set in Kabul, whose title is drawn from an apocalyptic scenario in Persian folklore; and 2013's profile of an Afghan media organisation, The Network. 'I pick things mainly on the basis of the message that the story is trying to convey, and how much I believe in the vision of the director,' he explains.
Real estate, property development, IT, energy and mineral resources are other areas found in Corniche Group's portfolio of disparate endeavours, and to attempt to encapsulate Hani Farsi's multiple raisons d'Ãªtre with anything like comprehensiveness here would be futile. But ask him which of his undertakings he is most emotionally bonded to, and he will tell you, without doubt, that it is his company's philanthropic arm, the Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation (MSFF). Founded in 2009, its CEO is Josh Hanfling - the senior-year Jewish roommate who was Farsi's first-ever school friend ('He also ended up being the best man at my wedding,' he laughs). The foundation was only ever going to be named after one man. 'I noticed that a lot of people honour their loved ones after they've passed away, so I wanted to make sure that my father was honoured during his lifetime,' he says. 'So rather than name it after myself, I named it after him - after all, it was him who taught me very early on in life how important it is not to be disconnected from those around you, and to make sure that you constantly give back.'How does he select causes to back? Partly by devouring a lot of current affairs - 'absorbing what needs doing,' as he puts it - and also by regular consultation with a board of trustees. 'We belong to a number of organisations with whom we discuss initiatives, trends that are going on - it's all very organic, which is what I want with all my work,' he says. 'The desire is there to give, and it's not affected by the company's performance or profit.'
Farsi's very inclination towards charitable projects, as well as how to approach them tactically and philosophically, was learned by osmosis during his formative years. 'I grew up seeing my father not just being involved with business, but also establishing scholarships, paying for people's medical care, restoring important buildings, buying art and donating it to the city. And, in essence, these three things form the basis of what the Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation gives money to today - culture, health and education. The main principle of the MSFF is that the recipients are not dictated by gender, religion, ethnicity or background; it's down to whomever we feel is the most deserving.' Scholarships, feeding programmes, sustainability initiatives, humanitarian efforts and cultural projects are conducted and/or aided by the foundation all over the planet. Last year, for example, saw investment in the preservation and study of archaeological sites in Cambodia, as well as in Project HOPE, which aids survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated rural parts of northern Japan - to name just two initiatives. The foundation has also established the self-explanatory Mohammed Said Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at Farsi's alma mater, the American University.
Other times, worthy initiatives seem to find Farsi almost by accident. 'I went to the World Cup in South Africa,' says Farsi, who is a serious football fan - a staunch supporter of Arsenal, in fact - but a man who knows how to mix very serious business with pleasure. 'I wanted to reach out to all the NGOs there and talk to them,' he says. 'I also went to the townships to see what their needs were. During one visit, I met this incredible woman - Rosie - in a township outside Cape Town. She has a tiny little shack, and for the last 21 or 22 years, she has been cooking food, selling it to adults but giving it for free to children. Her thinking is that they won't learn anything at school if they have an empty stomach. She'd been through adversity herself, but was so full of energy and love. So we now finance her on a programme every year. It's often on those lines: you travel, you meet people, you like their story, and you realise that this is why you got to meet them. The notion that you're changing their lives is not the whole story, because they're changing yours as well. Someone like that teaches someone like me about humility, about giving back, about a philosophy of life that I find extremely valuable - and strictly honest.' If the life and work of Hani Farsi seem astonishing to the reader, the blend of sincerity, charm, modesty, shrewdness and discretion with which he expresses it all is even more jaw- dropping. He can talk about the broad-stroke nuances in a George Lucas script one minute, water shortage in Tanzania the next, switching effortlessly from the lightheartedness required of the former subject to the solemn poise demanded of the latter. He laughs a great deal, is infectiously emotive, but is never flippant or sanctimonious. He comes across as a man with an expansive emotional spectrum who has worked out exactly how to employ that faculty to the maximum benefit of humanity. Where he finds the time for all his endeavours, passions and interests - so diverse in their nature, they see him engage with reality at its most starkly cruel, as well as its most divine, innovative and edifying - is anyone's guess. What is a pretty safe bet, however, is that the intense pride he feels for one Dr. Mohammed Said Farsi - scholar, aesthete, former Mayor of Jeddah and impeccable father figure - is reciprocated with zeal.