by Ilse D. Cirtautas
The Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Throughout the years, the association has followed its mission “to foster international understanding and goodwill.” The association has promoted exchanges of teachers, school children and university students, artists, exhibits and health care providers. Currently, the Sister City Association is cooperating with the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan. In Seattle, the Sister City has actively promoted Uzbek culture through the annual Navro’z celebration, which brings hundreds of people from Uzbekistan and around Central Asia together with citizens of Seattle.
In the first week of May 1972, I arrived in Moscow on my way to Tashkent, Almaty and Frunze (now Bishkek). As it was required in the 1970s, my hotel arrangements in the Soviet Union had been paid in hard currency in the U.S., together with my tickets for Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s airline. Just a few hours before leaving the hotel for my flight from Moscow to Tashkent, I was stopped by a group of Russians. It was obvious that the three Russians represented an official organization other than Intourist, which in those years was in charge of foreign tourists travelling in the USSR. To my great astonishment, they told me that I would not be allowed to travel to Tashkent! When I asked why, they explained that I could visit the Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz, but not the Uzbeks, and proceeded to disparage the Uzbeks. The discussion was in English, which they knew quite well, even to the extent of using inappropriate attributes to malign Uzbeks. Never in my life, before and after this confrontation, have I heard such words of prejudice for another people. Finally, I was able to convince them that I had met Uzbek scholars (linguists) at the annual meetings of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference (PIAC) in Vienna and Budapest, and that I hoped to continue working with them. This changed the situation and they approved my departure to Tashkent.
The plane left Moscow in the evening and arrived around midnight in Tashkent. There were only a few passengers on board. When I stepped from the plane, a wonderful fragrance of roses “hit my nose” (as the Uzbeks would say). The night was pleasantly warm with bright stars in the sky. Tashkent Airport was small with only a few buildings, surrounded by flowerbeds. I was greeted by a young Uzbek gentleman, who addressed me in Uzbek, apologizing that I would have to wait for my baggage. I joyfully answered him in Uzbek, “Don’t worry, I am at home here!” These words sprang out from the bottom of my heart and expressed my happiness having made it to Tashkent despite the Soviet authorities’ trying to prevent me from coming here.
The next morning in the Tashkent Hotel (now Palace Hotel) I discovered that the young Uzbek at the airport must have spread the news around in Tashkent that an Uzbek woman had come from abroad to visit her country. The hotel manager asked me in Uzbek not to go out on the street because my relatives might come. Another person, upon learning I had a daughter, asked whether I had taught her Uzbek. Indeed, everywhere I went in Tashkent I was welcomed as an Uzbek who had come home.
Tashkent in the 1970s was still a small city. Every morning the major streets were sprayed with water. In the evenings nightingales sang. The water ditches along the streets splashed with water. Except for a few buses and streetcars, very few cars moved on the streets. A few days after my arrival in Tashkent, the Vice President of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences and Director of the Institute of Language Ismet Kenesbayev, sent an envoy to Tashkent to accompany me to Almaty the next day.
Returning to Tashkent, I contacted my colleagues at the Uzbek Academy of Sciences. I was well received at the Folklore Section of the A. C. Pushkin (now Alisher Navoiy) Institute of Uzbek Language and Literature. The director of its Folklore Section, To’ra Mirazyev, even arranged a desk for me, and I began my research work there. It was here that one day I was asked to join a meeting at the Uzbek Friendship Society (O’zbekiston Do’stlik Jamiyati), which was considered a substitute for a nonexistent Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. This meeting marks the beginning of the Seattle-Tashkent or Tashkent-Seattle Sister City relationship.
Several middle-aged Uzbek gentlemen were present at the meeting, together with the Friendship Society’s vice president. The discussion was entirely in Uzbek. Tea was served with the traditional refreshments. They wanted to know from which city in the U.S. I had come. The conversation turned to Seattle. I told them about the universities we have in Seattle and described the lakes, the bay, and the mountains. I was quite taken by surprise when the vice president asked, “Could we not have Seattle and Tashkent join together as sister cities (in Uzbek, brother cities)?” Thinking about the distance between Seattle and Tashkent and the differences in culture, I expressed my concerns. However, none of the Uzbek gentlemen accepted them. The vice president kept repeating, hitting his fist on the table, “But we have you there, we have you there!” Behind the seriousness of their answers, there certainly must have been a plan they had in mind for the future of Uzbekistan.
None of the participants of the meeting, myself included, had any knowledge about then-Mayor Wes Uhlman’s initiative. In March 1972, when President Nixon announced that he would visit Moscow, Mayor Wes Uhlman resolved to make Seattle the first U.S. city to have a sister city in the Soviet Union. Uhlman remembered the friendly mayor of Tashkent who had come to Seattle in 1971 in the company of two other, less friendly mayors — one from Sochi, the other from Irkutsk. Uhlman wrote to the Tashkent Mayor Asanov and invited him to accept Seattle as Tashkent’s sister city, but the mayor had been fired immediately upon his return from the U.S.
Returning to Seattle in late September 1972, I tried to contact Mayor Uhlman to tell him about Tashkent’s interest in Seattle. One morning in early October, listening to the radio, I heard to my surprise the following words from Moscow, “Tashkent has accepted Seattle as its Sister City.” At once I called the mayor’s office and met with Wes Uhlman. I assured him that Tashkent was in the Soviet Union, but located in the non-Russian territory, Uzbekistan. I also gave him information about the Uzbek people and their culture. At the end of our meeting, Uhlman laid out his plans: first, the formation of a Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association, to which he appointed me as the first member, and second, to send a delegation of the City of Seattle to Tashkent.
One question kept coming up to my mind, “Why did Moscow without much delay agree to Tashkent’s sister-city relationship with Seattle?” The answer I received from the mayor of Tashkent was short and simple, “Seattle has the Boeing Company!” Indeed, the Soviets were interested in Seattle so that they could collect information on the production of world-standard airplanes.