- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

LONDON — Have you heard the joke about how Santa Claus passed out during a visit to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s house in Tehran? He was filling an unwashed presidential sock with presents when he was overcome by the smell.

For millions of Iranians, humor is proving the perfect way to let off steam, and jokes focusing on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s purported lack of personal hygiene have begun to proliferate via text messages and e-mails.

Most are the work of supporters of Iran’s fractured reformist movement, which remains marginalized despite signs of a comeback in a recent vote for district councils. Meanwhile, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s image as a religious zealot makes him an easy target.

Fond of denouncing all things American and rarely dressing in anything more statesmanlike than a beige anorak, he is portrayed as an ignorant, bigoted bumpkin in jokes swapped among Tehran’s educated middle class.

One joke tells of how Osama bin Laden meets Mr. Ahmadinejad in hell and finds him dancing with the American singer Jennifer Lopez.

“Is this your punishment?” asks bin Laden.

“No,” the president replies, “It’s Jennifer Lopez’s punishment.”

Other jibes are altogether more cutting, such as the tale of how the president finds lice when combing his hair one day. “OK, male lice to the left and females to the right,” he says — a reference to his reported attempt to introduce segregated corridors in the city hall during his previous job as mayor of Tehran.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has made recent efforts to shed his image as a stern and intolerant Islamist. After being fiercely heckled by reformists during a speech at a student demonstration last month, he surprised his audience by declaring that they should not be arrested or hurt. And members of the president’s personal staff say the boss likes a joke as much as anyone else.

However, rumor has it that Mr. Ahmadinejad took umbrage recently at a joke claiming that he needed to shower more often.

The gag was brought to his attention, not via Iran’s formidable secret intelligence services, but in a misdirected text message. In response, he is said to have lodged an official complaint with the judiciary.

According to Rooz Online, a pro-reformist Web site, a senior official with the country’s mobile phone network was fired and several others arrested and accused of being foreign spies.

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