originally published September 27, 2013
The moment I enthusiastically smashed ‘PUBLISH’ yesterday morning, propelling my dreary (yet hopefully at least moderately pithy) tribute to some of history’s worst music onto this site, I surpassed a significant milestone along the rickety trail of this project. Yesterday’s article signalled one year until the epic conclusion of my journey, a day which will no doubt be anticipated with equal fervor and online theorizing as this week’s Breaking Bad finale.
So one year from today my fingers will be silent. Unfortunately, this also means that one year from today will be the day when I bid adieu to my youthful exuberance, to my lower-risk insurance bracket, and to my thirties. It sends a quiver of squishy discord to my midsection when it occurs to me that I have been counting down the days to my fortieth birthday since January 1 of last year.
One more year. Of course this means I’m now 39, and for some folks that’s a lot more daunting than forty. 39 carries with it a stigma. Some – and here we’re talking about an admittedly illiterate and excessively superstitious some – even call it a curse.
For this saucy slice of human weirdness we’ll need to travel to Afghanistan, a place where logic and reason often nap in the back seat while fanaticism and wonky hoodoo take turns at the wheel. But as trepidatious as our society may be when it comes to the number 13 – skipping from floor 12 to 14 in building construction, hiding in fear when Friday lands on that date – we’ve got nothing on the incalculable insanity undertaken by paranoid Afghanis who believe in the Curse of 39.
And what’s funny is that they aren’t really sure why. No one knows the origin of this superstition, except that it might have something to do with the translation into the local language, which “many Afghans say” translates to ‘morda-gow’, which means ‘dead cow’, but is also a common slang for ‘pimp’.
First of all, that’s just lazy reporting by NPR, who probably have the resources at their disposal to dig up what the literal translation of ‘39’ would be in the local language. Okay, the translation I found in Farsi comes up in Arabic script, so that doesn’t help. And finding a working English-to-Pashto dictionary online is not as easy as it should be. Maybe I’m being a little too hard on NPR.
Anyway, rumor has it that the origin of the superstition dates back to some pimp in the city of Herat. This guy wasn’t particularly beloved, and he happened to live in apartment 39 and drive a vehicle with 39 on the license plate. Calling someone a pimp is offensive in Afghanistan, and believe me, the folks over there really don’t like being offended. 39 became associated with severe shame and disgrace. And because license plates there are linked with the car and not the driver, getting stuck with that number on your vehicle can be a major headache.
Zalmay Ahmadi, a 22-year-old student who was unfortunate enough to obtain a car with ‘39’ in the plate number, says people honk their horns, flash their lights and point at him. His friends now call him Colonel 39. Traffic commission workers are taking bribes (on average around $230) to issue new 39-less plates. People are even painting the ‘3’ to look like an ‘8’ – which I assume is against the law – just to avoid being stuck with that cursed number.
The number that appears to be cursed for no reason.
On average you’d need to slash about $2000 off the price of your car if you wanted to resell it with that number on the plates. And it’s not just cars, if you’re trying to rent an apartment or move a piece of real estate with 39 in the address, you’d better hope you find some unwitting tourist. People are switching their cell phone numbers or else setting their numbers to be blocked every time they make a call so that no one sees those horrific digits showing up in their caller ID.
Some people blame car dealerships for concocting this superstition. Others blame the mafia, claiming local gangsters will purchase 39-tainted cars for cheap then get the plates changed and resell them at a higher mark-up. Honestly, if a criminal mastermind can dupe an entire populace with a scam this simplistic, then maybe the populace deserves to be duped.
Local officials, including the head of Kabul’s motor and traffic department, have put together televised roundtable discussions about the number, bringing in imams and mathematicians to attest to its purity. The Quran features 57 verses that contain the number 39, they claimed. Using numerology and the weird patterns and formulas that roll along with it will also yield evidence that should clear 39 of any suspicion. You can manipulate the digit through some numerological digit-plunking to translate to ‘Allah’. Seems like that should strike a chord with the local Muslim population, doesn’t it?
Then there’s the tale of Mullah Tarakhil, who was running for parliament during the 2010 elections. Mr. Tarakhil was unlucky enough to be listed 39th on the ballot, which came to dominate his publicity in much the same way Christine O’Donnell’s craziness dominated her pre-2012 campaign appearances on the news. The teasing of Mr. Tarakhil escalated until eventually – as is so often the case in news stories from that part of the world – machine guns got involved.
Well, they allegedly got involved. The story goes that two of Mr. Tarakhil’s bodyguards opened fire on some Afghani citizens after a traffic accident, and that they did so because they were infuriated over the teasing of the candidate’s 39-related status by the other people on the scene. No charges were filed, and Mr. Tarakhil won the election.
Lastly there’s the story of a young man known simply as Ghafar. He had a 39 license plate and suffered daily ridicule. “A classmate of mine was always joking with me and saying I was a pimp,” he told a reporter. “I said, ‘If I’m a pimp then bring your sister and mother around.’ We’re not friends anymore.”
People in those parts of Afghanistan where they buy into this superstition would not even do as I am doing today and acknowledge that they are 39 years old. Over there they call themselves ‘one less than 40’, as though that’s fooling anyone. And why? Because they don’t want to be called a pimp, a term which is used almost boastfully in some parts of our culture.
Well, forget that. I’m 39, I’m cool with it, and I’ve got only 364 more days to scream that to the world from this particular pulpit. And that’s just groovy.