News / September 2015

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…

'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-Eugène 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.'

Tags