Afghan Car Owners Refuse to Have the Number 39 On Their Plates

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Omar Sobhani / Reuters

A man walks past a car with the number "39" on its license plate in Kabul June 14, 2011.

Afghanistan’s car industry may seem like an unlikely target for superstitious rumors, but it turns out the number 39 is causing quite a stir for car dealers and drivers in Kabul. 

The haunted numbers first won a bad reputation after a pimp living in neighboring Iran earned the nickname “39” from the license plate number splayed on his flashy car. The 39 taboo has gotten so bad that even kids in Kabul mock people driving car with 39 on their license plates, said Mohammad Ashraf, who works for a United Nations project in Afghanistan.

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Afghani car dealers say thousands of dollars of stock is now collecting dust in their yards, with even a prime condition vehicle almost unsaleable if its plates bear the disdained double digits, reports Reuters. Salesman Mohammad Jawed, the owner of a “39” Toyota Corolla, told Reuters he bought the car months ago for $10,000, but now can’t sell it. “No one wants to buy this car anymore, even though I would sell it now for $6,000 now.”

Whether or not the downfall of number 39 is greed or simply a coincidence remains questionable though. The car industry lobby believe those who benefit from the change in plate numbers include corrupt officials. According to Kabul’s Najibullah Amiri, the head of the car union in Kabul, corrupt police officers have encouraged the trend. With the police traffic department charging buyers $200 to $500 to change a “39” number plate for a new car to something less offensive. “It is a scheme by the police traffic department to earn money from buyers,” he told Reuters in his office in a dusty car sales lot in the western outskirts of Kabul. But Akbar Khan, the deputy chief executive of Kabul’s Traffic police rejects the charge and blames Kabul residents for buying into the bad reputation and taking the “39” curse to heart. “This was stirred up by the residents of Herat and passed on to Kabul. I think it’s nonsense.”

But not everyone is buying into the superstition. In the hopes that the taboo won’t spread beyond the capital, Mohammed Zaher is going against the tide.  “Despite warnings from my friends to avoid 39, I have to get my new car registered.” How far the negative belief of a couple of random digits is probably down to money than luck.

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