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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Well, today's date is striking fears and some hearts. A surprising number of people in Afghanistan are worried about a specific number, 39.

It's easy to think of numbers in many cultures that mean luck or disaster, or something taboo. In Afghanistan, the number 39 is certainly the latter.

NPR's Quill Lawrence explains it from Kabul.

QUIL LAWRENCE: It's hard to find a credible story to explain what exactly the number 39 in Afghanistan, but everyone knows it's bad.

Unidentified Man #1: (Arabic language spoken)

LAWRENCE: It means morda-gow, says a tailor on Kabul's Caliphatullah market street. Literally that translates as dead cow, but its well-known slang for a procurer of prostitutes - a pimp, especially if it's number on your car's license plate.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) It's associated with a bad reputation, if you have a 39 license plate.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) It all started with 39 because a lot of people say morda-gows to pimps. A lot of them drove cars with license plates 39.

LAWRENCE: It started in the western city of Herat, according to a random sampling of sidewalk vendors. They say a famous ne'er-do-well there had 39 on his car, and now anyone with that number faces everything from snickering to outright disdain. A politician in last year's election protested that his ballot number should be changed. Ask a man his age and he might reply: I'm a year till 40.

Afghans take their reputations very seriously and will change the number on their doorposts or mailbox to avoid the stigma. But that's become a bit hard in the past few months, according to Mir Wais, a traffic cop.

Officer MIR WAIS (Traffic Police): (Arabic language spoken)

LAWRENCE: With all the new cars in the city, he explains, the numbers on license plates recently hit the 3,900 series, with a city-wide pimp my ride effect on all new cars.

Mir Wais says he's heard rumors of high-ranking Afghan officials who've been making calls to get their number changed, including a famous mullah. If you're not well-connected there are also simpler methods.

ELIYAS: (Arabic language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Eliyas, the proud owner of a white second-hand Toyota, says it's just by accident that the license plate on his car is caked with mud, and you can barely make out the 39. But he does confess he was able to buy the car for a thousand dollars below market value because it's got a 39 plate. But Eliyas isn't worried about the number.

ELIYAS: (Arabic language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

LAWRENCE: Afghanistan uses a solar calendar that started the first day of the spring, and this year is number 1-3-9-zero. And Eliyas says he thinks the stigma is probably going to wear off by the years end.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: This NPR News.

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