Afghans fight superstition against '39'
Kabul - In a Kabul university, a student recently refused to answer roll call when his number was called. He had been allocated the dreaded number 39, which is associated with pimps in the minds of superstitious Afghans, and shunned as a bad omen.
"I am stuck with this number and I am quite embarrassed," the student said on condition of anonymity.
He will probably be bullied and harassed the entire university year, he said, "not exactly my idea of college life".
"I hope next year, I will not be assigned this number."
No one is sure how the number 39 got such a bad reputation, even unluckier than number 13 in the West.
Some believe that a pimp in the western province of Herat once had a car plate with the number 39.
Acknowledged bad omen
Whatever the reason, most Afghans will avoid phone numbers, car licence plates or anything else with the number 39 in it.
In November, during a grand assembly of around 2 000 tribal elders and political leaders in Kabul, the members of committee number 39 demanded a renumbering of the committees.
That incident cemented the number's status as an acknowledged bad omen.
But now several activitists have rallied to the number's defence and are campaigning to lift its stigma.
"As if there were not enough problems here in Afghanistan," Seddiq Afghan, a mathematician and popular television figure, said.
In the weeks following the tribal meeting, he painted a big 39 in the rear window of his car, and spoke out strongly against tarring "one number with such a reputation".
Stigmatising the number 39 adds an unnecessary problem to the country's long list of very real ones, he said.
The superstition is also affecting the country's international standing, he said. "The neighbours and international community make fun of us Afghans for being so simple that we take one number so seriously."
The mathematician studied the number and came up with some interesting trivia for his campaign. He then published pamphlets laying out the positive, even sacred connotations, of the maligned number.
Prophet Mohammed became a messenger of God after 39 years and 39 weeks, according to one pamphlet. "He wouldn't have become a prophet if he never entered the 39th year of his life," Afghan said.
A woman normally gives birth to a child after 39 weeks of pregnancy, another pamphlet points out.
Many young Afghans have joined the cause and started campaigns in defence of 39 by putting the number in their cars and using it to replace their profile photo on social networking website Facebook.
Najib Amiri, a 23-year old student, has added a campaign against 39-haters to his Facebook page. That page, called Afghanistan*****, is one of the country's biggest, with more than 65 000 followers, and deals with a wide range of topical issues.
The superstition of the grand assembly shocked Amiri. "Those people were gathered to advise our president and to decide the future of Afghanistan," he said.
The incident prompted Amiri and like-minded friends to start the Facebook campaign. "We changed the profile photo and put a picture of 39 in our page. We also asked our friends to do the same," he said.
"Luckily, people supported us in the campaign because most people are against associating the number with some pimp."
The lengths people are going to in their efforts to avoid the number 39 is making everyday life quite a headache, many Afghans say.
Adults who are 39 years old often say they are either 38 or 40.
Shopkeepers try to avoid charging anything including 39, or even 61, as customers tend to refuse paying or receiving the amount in change for fear of the bad luck it is supposed to hold.
Cars with licence plates beginning or ending with 39 are sold for half the price of those untainted by the unfortunate number.
Many people pay bribes of up to $300 to the traffic department to avoid being issued a number plate containing 39.
"At one point, the traffic department said they could not issue any more number plates because the numbers had gone into the 39,000s," Amiri said. "People [stopped] registering and waited for months."
Seddiq Afghan made a mathematician's argument. "If there are 1 million cars in Afghanistan, then 50 000 will have 39 in their number plates," he calculated. "The same goes for our identity cards, our house numbers, student roll numbers and so on," he said.
"How many should we avoid? How many should we remove?"