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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's booming car sales industry has been thrown into chaos by a growing aversion to the number "39," which almost overnight has become an unlikely synonym for pimp and a mark of shame in this deeply conservative country.
Drivers of cars with number plates containing 39, bought before the once-harmless double digits took on their new meaning, are mocked and taunted across Kabul.
"Now even little kids say 'look, there goes the 39'. This car is a bad luck, I can't take my family out in it," said Mohammad Ashraf who works for a United Nations project.
Other "39" owners flew into a rage or refused to speak when asked whether their car was a burden.
No one is quite sure why the number became so contaminated so fast, but Kabul gossip blames a pimp in neighboring Iran, which shares a common language with much of Afghanistan.
His flashy car had a 39 in its number plate, the story goes, so he was nicknamed "39" and the tag spread.
The shunning of 39 comes just weeks after drivers raced to remove rainbow decorations that were spotted on imported cars and became fashionable until conservative Afghans learnt they were also gay pride symbols.
Dealers say thousands of dollars of stock is now sitting unwanted in their yards, with even a prime condition vehicle almost unsaleable if its plates bear the now-hated numerals.
Salesman Mohammad Jawed's concerns about a "39" Toyota corolla he bought months ago for $10,000 are typical.
"No one wants to buy this car anymore, even though I would sell it now for $6,000 now," he said despairingly.
The head of the union of car dealers in Kabul, Najibullah Amiri, blames corrupt police officers for fanning the trend.
The issue has gained prominence just as number plates for Afghan cars -- which carry five digits -- rolled over from the series that starts with 38, to a new series that starts with 39.
Amiri said officials at the police traffic department charge buyers between $200 and $500 to change a "39" number plate for a new car to something less offensive.
"It is a scheme by the police traffic department to earn money from buyers," he told Reuters in his office in a dusty car sales lot in the western outskirts of Kabul.
Akbar Khan, deputy chief executive of Kabul's Traffic Police rejects the charge of corruption and blames the capital's residents for taking something unimportant too seriously.
"This was stirred up by the residents of Herat and passed on to Kabul. I think it's nonsense," Khan told Reuters. Herat is a bustling city near the Iranian border, and an auto import hub.
He admitted however that the aversion to 39 has affected the registration of new cars, mandatory before imported vehicles can take to the crowded streets of Kabul.
"Before the 39 (series began), we issued 70 to 80 registration plates to customers each day, but nowadays there are only two or three coming in," Khan said.
One of those brave souls said he was pushing ahead in the hopes that the prejudice would be confined to Kabul.
"Despite warnings from my friends to avoid 39, I have to get my new car registered," said Mohammad Zaher, a man with a bushy beard who said he was unconcerned by Kabul prejudice.
"I drive this car in a different province and there people don't know what 39 is."
Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Miral Fahmy