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The Language Of Ahmadinejad: 'The Bogeyman Snatched The Boob'

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
In a harangue delivered to Iranian expatriates visiting Tehran last week, Mahmud Ahmadinejad resorted to an odd turn of phrase to describe the futility of Washington's use of threats and allegations against Iran.

"The bogeyman snatched the boob," the Iranian president declared.

The expression is one used by mothers in Iran when they are weaning their children off breast milk. But "mameh," slang for breast in Persian, is not often uttered publicly in a country where words and expressions of even the slightest sexual nature are considered taboo and commonly censored in books and publications.

Ahmadinejad is known for his frequent use of crude language when discussing Western countries and adversaries. But recently the Iranian president has stepped up his use of undiplomatic language, reaching new lows in the process.

Ahmadinejad didn't stop at the breast reference. Addressing the United States, he alluded to another phrase that describes angry people as having "burning asses."

"Pour the water where it burns," he said, "why are you wetting other parts?"

Ahmadinejad appeared to be enjoying himself, as was his audience, which cheered for the Iranian president and responded with laughter.

'Weak Vocabulary'

But in the days that followed, his choice of language has attracted growing criticism.

A reformist legislator, Nasrollah Torabi, said that Iranian officials -- particularly those holding top posts -- should refrain from using language that damages the country. "Weak vocabulary should not have a place in the diplomacy of the Islamic republic," he said, adding that the use of uncivilized language won't help Iran's cause on the international scene.

A video clip compiling the crudest of Ahmadinejad's comments during his speech is making the rounds among Iranians, and has been posted on blogs, websites, and social networking sites such as Facebook.

WATCH: Viral video on YouTube of some of Ahmadinejad's comments.

The video has generated comments describing the language used by Ahmadinejad as "vulgar" and "thuggish," and as bringing shame to Iran.

A 25-year-old student in the Iranian capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he was "very sorry" and "ashamed." "This is not the language of a president," he said. "I wouldn't even say hello to someone who expresses himself in this manner."

Ahmadinejad has previously come often under criticism for his coarse language, particularly among reformist political figures, intellectuals, and members of the educated middle class who are more apt to pepper their language with passages from poets such as Ferdowsi, Saadi, Hafez, and Khayyam.

But the president's rhetoric has struck a chord among supporters and allies, including former government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham, who appreciate the dropping of formalities that impede easy communication with the common man.

Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, says Ahmadinejad's language does have some political appeal. "The repeated use of this language and how he's being welcomed demonstrate that some segments of society are happy that this kind of language is being used, particularly against foreign governments," Mahdi says.

'Dogs On A Leash'

In his speeches, Ahmadinejad often portrays the Islamic republic as one of the world's most powerful countries, while repeatedly stressing that Western states are helpless against Iran's advances and progress.

The Iranian president says Western powers are doomed, and have reached a standstill. He describes Western leaders as "cowards" and "liars," and is prone to using a condescending or insulting tone when speaking about them.

During a trip to Isfahan in 2009, he described the United States as a "quadruped" mired in the "region's swamp." He also had a strongly worded message for U.S. President Barack Obama: "Those who were tougher bullies, stronger scourges than you...could not do a damn thing to us."

In another speech he described countries that cooperate with the United States in pressuring Iran as "dogs" on a leash.

In early August, he referred to Israel's leaders as "stupid Zionists," and claimed they had sent people to assassinate him.

On at least two occasions -- once during a televised interview and during his speech to Iranian expatriates last week -- he used the Persian slang word for "nope," which is considered crass.

"I was talking to the head of one of East Asia's governments, he said the United States is very dangerous, meaning the politicians, and he told me I should be more flexible. After an hour and a half -- thinking he's made very convincing arguments -- he asked me, 'So, are you ready to back off a little?' I said: 'nope.'"

Exiled journalist and writer Faraj Sarkouhi believes Ahmadinejad's working-class rhetoric is aimed at awakening nationalist sentiment. "The language that is being used is simple language, language that relies on the logic of force. It's patriarchal language. It gives the right to power; not brain power, but there's a greater stress on physical power," Sarkouhi tells RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Germany.

He says that Ahmadinejad and others like him use this language "deliberately."

"It doesn't necessarily mean that this is their culture -- but in fact they use vulgar language to create a bridge and appeal to the masses. It's a kind of demagogy," Sarkouhi says.

Ahmadinejad also directs his combative and crude language against those who oppose him domestically.

Following his hotly disputed 2009 reelection, he described those protesting against alleged electoral fraud as "dirt and dust." Later, he described intellectuals behind the growing opposition as "goats."

Mahdi said Ahmadinejad's language has led to a spread of violence in Iranian society, particularly against his adversaries. "It degrades political discourse in society. As a result, dealings between political figures and rivals is turned into a channel that is not healthy or acceptable," Mahdi says.

Increasingly, the political tension has gone beyond verbal jousting. In recent months, several political figures and clerics who have criticized the Iranian president have been physically attacked by groups believed to be supported and directed by the government. Among them is one of Ahmadinejad's most outspoken critics, reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

Mojataba Vahedi, a senior adviser to Karrubi who is currently studying in the United States, says Ahmadinejad's language reflects the president's personality, and the realities of Iranian political life today. "Khamenei appointed Ahmadinejad as president because he needed a thug and a segment of the society -- which I call the Ahmadinejad faction of society -- to support him," Vahedi says.

"One beats up Karrubi, another beats up the families of the political prisoners who are on hunger strike and those who gather in front of the prison to protest, and the other takes Hamzeh Karami [chief editor of a reformist website who was detained following the 2009 election and reportedly tortured into making a false confession] and tortures him to make him confess."


There are signs, however, that Ahmadinejad might now be facing a backlash over his linguistic approach.

In a first, judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani, a senior conservative member of the Iranian establishment, on August 8 publicly lambasted Ahmadinejad over his language.

"As a citizen of this country I expect the language and the rhetoric the president employs in his speech to be impressive, well-founded, mature, and fair. What sort of wording is this: 'Let him fill up to the point of bursting' or, 'Let him have it, he will feel the pain,'" Larijani asked, noting that he had brought the issue up with the president personally many times.

Presidential adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr has rejected Larijani's criticism in a post on his personal blog. "Ahmadinejad, with the same language that has been criticized by Larijani, is alone fighting for the rights of the Iranian people and it's no secret to anyone that his language is bothering the arrogant power and despotic [regimes] and selfish people," he wrote, adding that "grateful" citizens have praised and commended Ahmadinejad's language.

Even if that is the case, the Iranian president's recent comments have also provided his opponents with fodder for poking fun at him.

Jokes are circulating that speculate about the whereabouts of the mysterious "boob" Ahmadinejad mentioned. One joke says state television will from now on air Ahmadinejad's comments only after midnight to make sure children are sleeping. Revolutionary slogans and famous quotes have been changed to include the slang word "mameh."

Meanwhile, "We want the boob snatched by the bogeyman back," a Facebook page created in response to Ahmadinejad's comments, has already attracted more than 10,000 members, and is still growing.

All of which greatly add to the possibility that the "boob" will forever be Ahmadinejad's bogeyman.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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