An interesting report in WSJ about a new urban myth in Kabul city: the number 39.
When I was in Herat city, the number 39 was notoriously believed to be the code for pimps. No one wanted to have it on his car license plate, cell phone or even age. If you asked someone “how old are you?” he would say “around 40” or “1 year less than 40” if it was in the passport office. Sometimes people used 38+1 instead of 39 when had no other choice. In 2004 when I came to Kabul I didn’t notice this attitude towards 39, and I was so happy to see Kabulis were not superstitious like Heratis who probably imported this odd idea from Iran.
But last year when I went to Kabul, a friend of mine who is a car dealer told me that the 39 thing has arrived from Herat to Kabul as well, and now no one buys cars with a 39 on its license plate. He told me stories about a guy who resisted the sweeping urban myth and said it was bullshit, but after a month he begged him to “melt” his car.
The number 420 is also a nationally recognized bad number in Afghanistan which means a dishonest and villain person. People use it to tease each other, to curse, or in Panjshir to compliment! (However I’ve noticed that in Canada the number 420 has a better reputation ;)
There is an ancient Islamic science of numbers known as Abjad, in which each alphabet letter is coded with one number and then instead of using a certain number you use a word, a phrase or a verse of poetry to express something. Most of the classical biographers used a poem to say an important date. Even some old grave stones have a poem instead of the exact date of the death of the person. Probably they believed it was easier to memorize a poem than a number.
Even today some Abjad numbers are widely and respectfully used in all Muslim countries like the number 786. Muslims usually begin a speech or any writing piece such as a letter with “In the name of Allah the most compassionate the most merciful” which is the first verse of Kuran. Since a piece of paper bearing the holy name might be unintentionally disrespected by throwing, burning or smashing, so the people instead started to use 785 which is the Abjad number for that verse.
I am not sure if 39 has an Abjad basis as well, but to me it seems very ridiculous. The notion of “pimp” in Afghanistan had already been covered with myths. One was the vague Dari term we use for pimp: mordah gaw, which literally means “caw dead” or “someone whose caw is dead”. We don’t have any other equivalent for pimp in Dari; Iranians use other words for it. I have always been wondering what kind of connection there might have been between a pimp and a dead caw? This is even more bizarre than the connection between a pimp and the number 39.