Afghan car dealers cursed by the number ’39’

Being a car salesman would appear to among one of life’s more difficult jobs: rejection comes early and often, and salespeople are often the butt of jokes by late-night television hosts, comedians and any number of other folks looking for a quick laugh.

What’s worse than being a car salesman? Being a car salesman in Afghanistan. One imagines that trying to sell new and used vehicles in one of the poorest and most war-ravaged regions of the globe is certainly not a task for the faint of heart.

And the job can involve even more than just trying to overcome the difficulties of selling cars to a populace with little disposable income.

Apparently, a bizarre Afghan phenomenon that equates the number 39 with prostitution has become a headache for the country’s car-sales industry, as buyers are avoiding vehicles with license plates containing the dreaded number for fear of being ostracized, according to Agence-France Presse.

“This is no longer just a social issue, it is becoming an economic issue for us,” said Mohammad Zaman, the owner of a car lot on the outskirts of Kabul, where three cars, a crane and a dump truck sit abandoned due to the numerical curse. “It has been months and no-one is buying them.”

According to many Afghans, “39” got its bad reputation through a well-known pimp who was often identified by the number on his car’s license plates as he drove around Herat, a western city that lies closes to the border with Iran, Agence-France Presse reported.

The man’s seedy image and illicit business meant that the number eventually became associated with immorality. Apocryphal or not, the tale spread to other Afghan cities in recent years – and the curse was born. Now anyone seen travelling around sporting a “39” license plate is in danger of being linked to the underground sex industry that is taboo in the devoutly Muslim nation, according to the wire serve.

Bashir Ahmad bought a Toyota Corolla for $12,000 in Kabul at the beginning of the year but is now trying to sell it for $6,000 after being mocked in his neighborhood because his license plate included the number “39.”.

“I didn’t know about this 39 thing, but soon some boys near my home started ridiculing me,” he says. “At first I didn’t care, but now, every time I return from work, the boys shout ‘Hey! Here comes Haji 39!'”

Car industry professionals say the number’s unwanted place in the popular imagination is damaging for dealers trying to make an honest living in the despoiled nation, Agence-France Presse reported.

“This is what idiots believe in, it is mere superstition. But it causes big economic loss for anyone dealing with the number 39 in one way or another,” said Mohammad Bashir Haqjo, a car yard owner and member of the Kabul union of car dealers.

The problem has been acute lately as the Afghan traffic commission, which issues car plates in numerical order, has had only “39” plates to offer.

Car agents say there are now only about 200 number plates left in the batch, but many of those purchasing new vehicles have been seen doctoring their plates illegally, using white paint to change the digits to something more benign.

The issue has infuriated the traffic authorities.

Nooruddin Hamdard, chief of the traffic department of Kabul, described the curse as “baseless and ridiculous.”

“Those people who are illiterate pay attention to such things,” said Hamdard. “We used to issue a large number of number plates every day but now because of this baseless rumor, we are issuing far less.”

(Above: Photo, courtesy of Agence-France Presse, showing Afghan near a vehicle with a license plate with the dreaded number “39.”

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