Andrew Lawler on “Isfahan: Iran’s Hidden Jewel”
The author of the magazine piece talks about his reporting
Andrew Lawler has written for newsletters, newspapers, and magazines about topics ranging from astronomy to zoology. He has been a Washington reporter covering Capitol Hill and the White House, a Boston correspondent for a science magazine writing about universities, and now is a freelancer living in the woods of Maine.
What drew you to this story? Can you describe its genesis?
One morning I woke up in a hotel room in Washington and watched the coverage surrounding Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the US. I was appalled by the presentation of Iran as a barbaric state intent on terrorism. Having traveled before in that country, my experience was profoundly different. That morning I also received an email inviting me to a cultural heritage festival in Isfahan. Later that day, I had a meeting with Smithsonian editor Carey Winfrey and suggested the story as a way to give Americans a more nuanced view of a complex country. He readily agreed. The festival was canceled, but I went anyway.
What surprised you the most while covering Isfahan?
Here was a city rivaling Florence in beauty, yet almost completely empty of tourists!
What was your favorite moment during your reporting?
Exploring the old hamams—the communal steam baths—which were all now closed but in various states of restoration. These were evocative settings, filled with painted murals and arched rooms, and with a whiff of ancient Rome about them.
Were there any interesting moments that didn’t make it to the final draft?
I visited an ancient castle outside the city with two restoration experts. A small village nestled below, a strange and beautiful place with stone doors on gorgeous 18th century homes slowly falling into disrepair. There were a few old people, but most of the young had left for the city. There was a feeling of the old Iran, which is quickly fading.
How were you received as an American in a Middle Eastern nation?
To a person, everyone in Isfahan I met was remarkably hospitable. I was taken to lunch and dinner by freshly made friends who refused all efforts on my part to pay. I'm a Southerner who thinks my manners are good, but they put me to shame!