Kabul - Attracting dust but few prospective buyers in a car lot on the outskirts of Kabul, three saloon cars, a crane and a dump truck sit abandoned due a numerical curse that has swept Afghanistan.
A bizarre phenomenon that equates the number 39 with prostitution has become a headache for the car industry, as buyers avoid car licence plates containing the dreaded number for fear of being ostracised.
“This is no longer just a social issue, it is becoming an economic issue for us,” said the car yard's owner Said Mohammad Zaman.
“It has been months and no-one is buying them,” he said, pointing at the white, black and blue sedans and the construction vehicles cluttering up his lot.
According to many Afghans, “39” got its bad reputation through a well-known pimp who was often identified by the number on his car plates as he drove around Herat, the western city that lies closes to the border with Iran.
The man's seedy image and illicit business meant that the number 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” licence plate is in danger of being linked to the underground sex industry that is taboo in the devoutly Muslim nation.
Bashir Ahmad, who bought a Toyota Corolla for $12,000 (about R80 000) in Kabul at the beginning of the year, is now trying to sell it for $6,000
after becoming a laughing stock in his neighbourhood due to the unlikely urban legend.
“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 war-ravaged nation.
“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 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 rumour, we are issuing far less.”
The problem, it seems, even extends to taxi drivers.
Abdul Samad, a Kabul taxi driver whose car plates include “39”, says people make fun of him when he is transporting female passengers.
“People think that I am a real pimp and since I have women in my car, they perceive that I am doing business with the women,” he said. “I am selling this car soon.” - Sapa-AFP