By on June 15, 2011

The confrontation between modern, Western societies and deeply traditional lifestyles in Afghanistan creates a healthy supply of fascinating car stories, as we’ve already heard about such uniquely Afghan manifestations of car culture as the Taliban’s Toyota Hilux-inspired maple leaf tattoos. And now here’s another one, fresh off the Reuters wire: Afghans are reportedly in a tizzy over (get this) license plates containing the number 39. Yes, really.

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.

Other “39” owners flew into a rage or refused to speak when asked whether their car was a burden.

The Guardian adds:

I did not think it would matter when I got my car,” said Zalmay Ahmadi, a 22-year-old business student. “But when I drive around all the other cars flash their lights, beep their horns and people point at me. All my classmates now call me Colonel 39.”

We’ve heard of huge demand for certain-numbered license plates before, such as the craze in Arab countries for the lowest possible license number… but we’ve never heard of a taboo number when it comes to license plates. So what gives?

According to Reuters, the exact cause of the “39” taboo is tough to pin down.

Kabul gossip blames a pimp in neighbouring Iran, which shares a common language with much of Afghanistan.

His flashy car had a 39 in its number plate, the story goes, so he was nicknamed “39” and the tag spread.

But, as is so often the case with such seemingly irrational group manias, there’s a surprisingly rational explanation for how the number 39 actually became “taboo.” Whether or not an Iranian pimp actually made the number infamous, the Afghan license plates just rolled over from five digits starting with 38 to five digits starting with 39. Oh yes, and the police will charge anywhere from $200 to $500 to swap out a plate starting with 39 for a less-offensive plate. Or, in the words of Kabul’s car dealer union boss

It is a scheme by the police traffic department to earn money from buyers

The other perspective: it’s just so much groundless gossip, making its way from one Afghan town to the next. Whatever the case, cars with 39 on their license plate have seen their resale values plummet nearly by half (if, say their owners, they can even be sold at all), intensifying the irrational nature of the meme: after all, why give up thousands in resale over a $500 bribe for a new plate? But registrations have dried up as well, reportedly falling from 70-80 per day to “two or three,” showing how powerful even a wholly irrational taboo can be in Afghanistan’s traditional society. On the upside: mysterious rumors that spread quickly often disappear twice as fast. Hopefully Afghanistan’s motorists will overcome their fear of being mistaken for a pimp soon, and learn to live with the license plate they have.

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