An Encounter/ Fars Province
The gentleman pictured on the right paid us a visit during the previous night at our desert park-up, introducing himself to us as a member of the Basij (Iran’s auxiliary domestic security force).*
After a few minutes of questions about our intentions, route, and mode of travel, he visibly relaxed, saying to Simon: ‘I think you are a good man. Actually I am also a teacher of English at my local school.’
His English was indeed very good and we chatted for a while. The man became exuberantly friendly. He gave us his card and said to contact him in case of any trouble. When I thanked him, he replied, fixing me in his stare: ‘We are the people’s army’.
Simon posited the idea for us to visit the school the next day, so the students would a chance to converse with a native English speaker. The man accepted and we set a time and place to meet in his village.
Upon reaching our meeting point at the school the next morning, we find the school gates ajar, with girls peeking curiously through the gap, giggling, until the gates are shut from the inside.
The man turns up and announces, visibly embarrassed, that he has not been able to obtain permission for us to visit the school, and offers us a tour of the village instead.
It is a nice village. The women are beautifully dressed in the local style – long black dresses with cotton petticoats, offset by colourful silk and damask hoods, aprons and leggings.
They decline to have their portraits taken: usually the husband needs to give permission. The women running the local shop let me take the above photograph, but opt to step out of shot.
As often happens, we are invited for lunch, but unable to stay – the time on our visa is running low and we hope to reach the Gulf coast the same day.
The man, whose phone has rung off the hook during our visit (not surprisingly: there is a yellow campervan with German plates parked outside the local school), walks us back, gives us water and we shake hands good-bye.
We have, by the way, had many similar encounters with basiji.
*This is the Wikipedia entry about the Basij:
The Basij (Persian: بسيج) (officially Basij-e Mostaz’afin, literally “Mobilization of the Oppressed”) is a paramilitary volunteer militia established in 1979 by order of the Islamic Revolution’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The original organization comprised the civilian volunteers whom the Ayatollah Khomeini urged to fight in the Iran-Iraq war. The force consists of young Iranians who have volunteered, often in exchange for official benefits. Currently Basij serve as an auxiliary force engaged in activities such as internal security as well as law enforcement auxiliary… Basij is the name of the force; a basiji is an individual member.
The Basij are set up as subordinate to, receiving their orders from, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei to whom they are known for their loyalty… They have a local organization in almost every city in Iran.