“Excuse me, could we talk with each other shortly?” –“Sure!”
I follow my colleagues into the room next door. They look embarrassed as they close the door behind us. Both try not to look at me.
“What’s up?” I ask as I have no clue why they invited me for a confidential talk.
“You have sent this email yesterday around…” one of them says but breaks off.
“Yes, the one with the minutes of the meeting in it?” I try to speed him up.
I had to write the minutes of the staff meeting and send it around to everyone.
“Why did you write the number in there?”
Number?!? I try to retrace the parts of the report but can’t find any other numbers than the numbering of the sections.
“The 39.” It quarries out of my colleague. As if this would explain anything further for me…
“Aer….Excuse me, I can’t remember to have written anywhere a number 39 and even if I had, what’s the point of it?”
“You know, numbers have a significant value in our societ…”-”…it wasn’t always like that. It just came up in the last years…” – “The women in the office have approached us and…”
“Excuse me, what are you talking about?!” I try to make sense of the way they interrupt each other and of what they say.
“The number 39 symbolizes something bad in our society. It stands for when a man does something very bad to a woman…” – they don’t go into detail any further as they are too embarrassed to speak it out in front of me. They show me their outlook-program and how they received my email: the emailadresse is not spelled out like it should be but contains symbols like slash, hash keys and…a 39!
The 39 stands in Afghanistan for being a pimp. But why? The origins of this lie in different theories or are told as rumors and stories. Some are explaining it with the so called Abjad numbers. They are a decimal numeric system in which every letter in the Arabic alphabet is being assigned a numeric value. (The first letter ‘alif’ gets number 1, the second letter ‘be’ is number 2 and so on and so forth). In this system the numbers follow a certain numerology. The famous and well known sentence bism illāh ir-raḥmān ir-raḥīm (“in the name of god, the merciful, the compassionate”) for example is been given the numeric value of 786 which is an addition of the values of the letters: 2+60+40+1+30+30+5+1+30+200+8+40+50+1+30+200+8+10+40). And the word “Allah” (الله ) itself has –if followed Wikipedia knowedge- the numeric value of (1+30+30+5). Inferentially: numbers have very different meaning in different social contexts…
But the famous and mostly told story is the one of a pimp in Herat, who drove a car with the license plate which ended with the number 39. Even his phone number is said to have a 39 in it.
It would be an understatement to say that calling someone a “pimp”, is a huge diffamation in Aghanistan. The different ways how to avoid being associated with the number 39 in everyday life is more than telling: Car license plates with the number 39 are not being bought or repainted.
Some blogs are reporting of men who say they would be one year younger than 40 or one year older than 38 when asked in official places for their age. And even officials at the Loya Jirga refused to be in a group with the number 39. The group had to be renamed as “group 41”.
Without knowing I had jumped right into the middle of one of Kabul’s most wide spread official secrets and had infamously called my colleagues pimps…great Miss Curiositiesforsale!…I could not have dropped the brick any better…