Unlucky number 39?

Afghans who live under Taliban-controlled areas these days have suffered abuse for not growing a beard, not praying, and, more generally speaking, for being a woman. But ridicule for your license plate? As of this spring, that’s a Kabul specialty: Afghanistan’s booming car sales industry has been thrown into chaos by a growing aversion to ...

PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images
PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images
PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images

Afghans who live under Taliban-controlled areas these days have suffered abuse for not growing a beard, not praying, and, more generally speaking, for being a woman. But ridicule for your license plate? As of this spring, that's a Kabul specialty:

Afghanistan's booming car sales industry has been thrown into chaos by a growing aversion to the number "39", which almost overnight has become an unlikely synonym for pimp and a mark of shame in this deeply conservative country.

Drivers of cars with number plates containing 39, bought before the once-harmless double digits took on their new meaning, are mocked and taunted across Kabul.

Afghans who live under Taliban-controlled areas these days have suffered abuse for not growing a beard, not praying, and, more generally speaking, for being a woman. But ridicule for your license plate? As of this spring, that’s a Kabul specialty:

Afghanistan’s booming car sales industry has been thrown into chaos by a growing aversion to the number "39", which almost overnight has become an unlikely synonym for pimp and a mark of shame in this deeply conservative country.

Drivers of cars with number plates containing 39, bought before the once-harmless double digits took on their new meaning, are mocked and taunted across Kabul.

"Now even little kids say ‘look, there goes the 39’. This car is a bad luck, I can’t take my family out in it," said Mohammad Ashraf who works for a United Nations project.

No one’s quite sure about the origins of the obsession; the most frequently reported story pins it on an Iranian pimp from the western city of Herat who lived in an apartment numbered 39 and had a 39 on his license plate.  Whatever the cause, though, it’s becoming a problem for more than just car drivers:

Afghans with 39 as part of their cellphone numbers have to endure so much derision that some have blocked people from seeing their number when they call. Others have switched their phone numbers altogether.

To avoid being needlessly ridiculed, Afghans who are 39 years old will sometimes tell people they are "one less than 40."

Kabulites aren’t alone in their distaste for a specific number.  In 2007, Brussels Airlines had to add a dot to their 13-dot logo to assuage customer fears. The Chinese have a long-standing animosity towards the number 4, which, in Chinese, sounds like the word for "death". The superstition prompted government last year to stop issuing license plates with 4’s. You never know when your license plate will come back to haunt you.

Twitter: @ned_downie

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