In Manhattan, people are known to covet a phone number with a 212 area code—sometimes paying up to $1,000 for those three little digits. But in Iraq, the scramble for the coolest number is on another level entirely, with some cellphone numbers being valuable enough to pay off a modest mortgage.
In an eye-opening look at the culture and economy of Iraq, The Washington Post reports that a “distinguished” phone number is one of the most efficient ways to communicate that you’re hot shit. It can be useful to get the attention of a high-profile business partner, a well-connected politician, or a potential romantic partner.
According to the Post, the market for numbers has had about a decade to form its own sort of internal logic. What counts as a “distinguished” number seems to be a little bit in the eye of the beholder—the only criteria that’s given is that it should be a “distinctive or beautiful series of digits” like “a string of sevens or zeros, or a repeating pattern of numerals.” Maybe someone thinks 8 is their lucky number, or maybe they’d just really love to land 0-420-420-6969 and bask in the lolz.
It’s a fascinating example of how a country that’s been torn apart by multiple wars is figuring out ways to reestablish cultural hierarchies. Understandably, the market had cooled down in Iraq as the Islamic State took over various regions of the country. But now that ISIS appears to be contained, people are looking to acquire a status symbol as they face a more hopeful future and build new careers.
A retailer in Iraq will charge around $3 for a run of the mill SIM card with an attached number that isn’t particularly notable. The country’s telecoms charge around $30 “silver”-level SIM card that’s tied to a number with some combination of consecutive digits. And one can acquire a “presidential number” at the “diamond plus”-level in the $1,500 range.
For some, a midrange number is fine because they’re just looking for something easy to remember. But the prices get out of control for certain in-demand numbers on the secondary market. Dealers at shops like “World of Distinction” and “the King of Distinguished Numbers,” have price lists and offer appraisals. The Washington Post spoke to one such dealer, Safa Mohsen:
Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s two numbers are worth more than $10,000 each, Mohsen concluded. Maj. Gen. Fadhil Jamil al-Barwari of the elite, U.S.-trained counterterrorism service had a number that would fetch at least $38,000 for the sheer number of consecutive zeros, Mohsen said.
But even a dealer with Mohsen’s clout has a white whale — a number so rare and beautiful that he says he has been commissioned by the owner of an Iraqi television station to acquire it for $120,000. The phone number has seven consecutive zeros and belongs to a policeman in the city of Kirkuk. But Mohsen said the officer wouldn’t accept the offer and the television baron, whom Mohsen declined to identify, couldn’t afford to pay more.
Mohsen claimed that despite the fact that the SIM card only cost the police officer $125, he’d rather keep the number than take that sort of life-changing money. One can imagine that the officer could find some uses for getting his calls answered in his line of work, but he also expects that its value will just continue to rise.
To be sure, status symbols like iPhones and fancy cars are flaunted in the same way in Iraq that they are here. But there’s something kind of beautiful about a growing system in which some random numbers are more prized than others, many for completely disparate reasons. The sequence 867-5309 appears (in that order) in the first 200 million digits of pi fifteen times. But one catchy song makes them the easiest possible phone number to remember for many people. In Iraq, those numbers might be meaningless to most potential buyers. One man’s Vermeer is another’s Velvet Elvis.