Yeki bood yeki nabood

Among a pile of forwards I happened to receive a nice clip about the beginning phrase of Iranian fairytales, Yeki-bood-yeki nabood – one was and one wasn’t. And it went on to conclude that such a phrase being hammered into us from childhood may well be the reason why we choose to be alone, always “yeki” and never a team. That if one is there, the other is absent. As if someone had just offered the best food for my eccentric thoughts, my mind took off and hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to get rid of it.

I began to break down the phrase and, as if peeling an onion, the deeper I probed the more layers I found.

All cultures have a few significant numbers, numbers that are given a bigger job, that have a power beyond mathematics. That seven is lucky and thirteen a bad omen is rather universal. But the fact that Iranians honor these two numbers around Norooz may indicate that old Zoroastrians started the trend. Muslims believe that number eleven is lucky because it belonged to Imam Ali, in Judaism number eighteen is considered a good omen and Bahais believe nine is never lost because when you add the digits of its multiplications, you end up with nine again. Regardless of what ones faith may be, we Iranians are a nation that adores number one. Ah, yes, that glorious “Yek” seems to generate a sense of respect even if it is in our stubborn nature, which we respectfully call yekdandeh.

In the old days, regardless of which child in the family achieved the most, all privileges were bestowed on first-born while the rest of us struggled to be number one in other ways. As a matter of fact, lacking equivalent of the word valedictorian, In Persian we call it shagerd-e-avval or first student. The word “yek” is also used in different combinations to mean unique as in Yekta, yekdafe, yekrang and of course an only child is called yeki-yekdaneh.

As I analyze the phrase I also notice that in a short sentence, the verb “bood” is used twice. Could that explain our nostalgic tendencies and why we as a nation are so fascinated with the past? We even seem to take pleasure in recalling the bad days that are long gone. Future never seems to hold a candle to the past. Our yesterdays are extremely colorful, so glorious that the details have remained vivid. If electricity changed our lives, it is with deep affection that we recall the inconvenient cheragh toori and Lampa. Central heating came and we long for grandma’s korsi and with all the good international cuisine, sometimes all we crave is a good old-fashioned Deezi. The IS can’t measure up to what WAS – not to mention to some that Was Not.

The article had concluded that the phrase’s significance may explain some of our inability for team work. That there are never two doing the same, that if one IS, the other ISN’T. But maybe there’s more. I see the loss, the sorrow and the fact that for thousands of years we have done our best to remember those who no longer are. Isn’t that why we choose to commence our fairy tales with that missing link? That gaping hole, the sad void is everywhere, an empty space so alluring that it makes us listen and even gives meaning to what is yet to come, a most fascinating way to begin a story.

Having traveled a long way, I look back and from where I stand the one that was and the one that wasn’t are all nothing but a mirage. Only now can I see that in fact none of it really WAS. That the destiny of our nation was the actual fairytale, that our culture – assaulted as it may seem – still maintains its profound beauty. Never satisfied with what we have, nostalgia draws us to what is lost, the remembrance soothes our souls and helps us to sleep at night.

So maybe indeed yeki bood and yeki nabood, but regardless of how estranged we may be or how we choose to tell our stories, a whole nation still IS. One can only hope to compose a better narrative for those who come, and perhaps a day will come when the children of our children begin their happy storylines with a simple, uncomplicated phrase such as, “once upon a time.”

Zohreh Ghahremani is the author of Sky of Red Poppies, available now on Amazon & most bookstores.

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