Nebulous urban legends explain the infamy of 39, a number whose notoriety is causing government agencies and key industries to lose billions as Afghans refuse to purchase products containing the disgraced digits.
The number 39 has been taboo in Herat province for at least a decade. The most prominent narrative involves a pimp from either Herat or the nearby Iranian city Masshad, who allegedly delivered prostitutes to his clients in an automobile displaying the number 39 on its license plate. Calling someone a pimp is considered a grave insult in Afghanistan, and could entail deadly consequences for the offender.
The rumor spread throughout the country around 2010, when Afghans from other provinces began refusing to accept license plates that included the number. By the following year, the problem became nationwide as license plate serial numbers rolled over and the motor vehicle registry began issuing plates beginning with 39.
The Kabul traffic department holds stocks of unsold license plates containing the number 39.
Even those who didn't believe that 39 refers to prostitution procurement refused to get the number. Prices of automobiles displaying such license plates plummeted. Most refused to register their vehicles altogether, waiting for the serial number to roll over to 40. Others scraped the number off their houses and slathered paint over their license plates. People exchanged their mobile phone sim cards and bought ones with “clean” numbers. Those unlucky enough to be 39 years old would either say they were 38 or 40, therefore forsaking their 39th birthday celebrations.
The hysteria escalated further after members of Peace Jirga comprising MPs, university professors and other representatives from around the country refused to be assigned to “Committee No. 39” at a 2011 meeting, forcing organizers to rename the committee to “No. 41.”
The initial problem subsided after clerics and social media activists intervened, but reemerged in recent months as the license plate digits for private vehicles rolled over to 39 again in Kabul, this time with dire financial consequences for the city government. Drivers refuse to accept license plates even if the number appears in the middle or end of the five-digit number.
"Even educated people and government officials refuse," said Kabul Traffic Deoartment Director General Assadullah. "They come here with armed guards and ask for different plates."
Abdul Rauf, a Kabul resident, says he has waited four months to apply for a license plate. “I have not submitted my application yet, though, because the serial numbers have reached 39. I do not want a license plate with this number.”
In the past seven months, the Kabul Traffic Department issued 13,000 license plates containing the number 39, but only 40 have been sold. Assadullah says the financial losses amount to one billion Afghani.
Together with the Interior Ministry, the Kabul traffic department has called on journalists and social media users to join a campaign debunking the urban legend. Fahim Farwak, an Interior Ministry official, says he chose a license plate with the number 39 digits for his police vehicle to make a point.
“When people see that I voluntarily chose to have 39 in my number plate, they might question their positions and hopefully change their minds,” Farwak said.
Dozens of activists have joined the effort, but local businesses continue to experience economic losses. Haji Ebrahim, a car salesman in Kabul, says prices of vehicles with 39 in their license plates dropped 16-30 percent in some cases, from $7500-5000 or from $30,000-25,000 depending on the year of their make. “The newer the cars, the higher the difference in their prices,” he told AT.
“Nobody buys any phone with 39 in it,” says Hasseebullah, a mobile phone salesman in Kabul’s Kart-e-Say neighborhood. “We might be able to sell it to someone who is illiterate, from a rural area and unaware of all these taboos. But such a person is very difficult to find.”