Road to Damask: a grand old man of Iranian enterprise talks to Michael Griffin about his life and his latest venture--organic rose essence for the high-end cosmetics market.

Author:Griffin, Michael
Position:Homayoun Sanati - Interview

"EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS in your life is by accident," declares Homayoun Sanati in his temporary apartment in London's Chelsea. "I have done 81 rotations of the world around the sun and everything that happened was by accident."

Now a millionaire, he winters in Bandar Abbas, visits the Mayo Clinic for medical checkups and London for legal advice. But every summer finds him in the southeast Iranian city of Kerman when harvest is underway at Zahra Rosewater, a company he founded in the late 1970s. Zahra Rosewater distilled 100kg of pure essence after last year's June harvest of Damask roses, most of which was sold at $7,500 per kilo to makers of cosmetics and fragrances in the European Union, notably in Germany.

Sanati started out as an office boy in Kerman's ancient bazaar, going on to deal in carpets and precious stones with his father. He was instrumental in establishing a literary empire during the time of the Shah, ran a date factory and later a cultured-pearl enterprise--before serving a five-year term in the prisons of the Ayatollah Khomeini. All by accident.

His acumen stems from his grandfather, Ali Akbar Sanati-zadeh, "a simple man with no education who thought he might see something of the world to know what was going on". Ali Akbar walked to Bandar Abbas, from where he worked his passage to India and Istanbul, only returning after 10 years of wandering through Europe and Russia. "He came to the conclusion that Iran needed two things to develop, education and industry, and he was particularly interested in industry," said Homayoun. "That is why we are called Sanati, which means industrious. It was a name he adopted and, simultaneously, he started an orphanage."

The first family fortune was built after Sanati-zadeh devised a washable helmet that was supplied by the thousand to the British-controlled South Persia Rifles in World War One. The second stemmed indirectly from his grandfather's early interest in the therapeutic effects of painting and calligraphy on traumatised children in the orphanage, which went on to become a greenhouse for Iranian artistic talent; Ali Akbar Sanati, the painter and sculptor who died in April 2006, was among the institution's earliest intakes.

"So we had this family tradition of art," recalls Homayoun, a chic and vigorous individual even into his eighth decade. "I was organising an exhibition of Expressionists in Tehran in 1954. The US attache came and told me that Franklin Book Programmes wanted to...

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