My time in Tashkent: report-back from our Central Asian sister city

A mosque showing the traditional architectural style in Tashkent. (Photo by <a href="">so11e </a>via Flickr)

City Councilmember Jean Godden visited Uzbekistan this summer to celebrate the enduring relationship between Seattle and Tashkent. 

Tashkent, Uzbekistan is an ancient city positioned along the Silk Road once traveled by Genghis Khan. But in another way, it’s a young city — it just finished celebrating 22 years as an independent nation, no longer part of the Soviet Union.

Tashkent is also marking the 40th anniversary of an unusual sister-city relationship with Seattle, a tie forged long ago amidst seemingly meager hopes for peace during the dark days of the Iron Curtain.

To celebrate that enduring partnership, a group of senior officials from Tashkent visited Seattle in late July. And, in return, I led a Seattle delegation to the city in late August to both mark the sister-city anniversary and help celebrate Uzbekistan’s September 1st Independence Day.

A vast open-air stadium overflowed, no seat empty, with hundreds of elected officials, dignitaries, local leaders, ambassadors and foreign delegations. We Seattleites were sandwiched between the German and Russian delegations.

Long-time Uzbek President Islam Karimov addressed the assemblage, listing achievements of the young nation. In his view, the nation had finally reached self-sufficiency and was registering economic growth.

The Seattle delegation, including the author (fourth from left) at the Happy Mother monument in Mustakillik Square. (Photo by Jeff Godden)
The Seattle delegation, including the author (fourth from left) at the Happy Mother monument in Mustakillik Square. (Photo by Jeff Godden)

Speeches over, the stadium launched into a wild unrestrained party featuring thousands of costumed dancers and marchers.

Giant TV screens flashed native scenery and glowing mosaic patterns; singers and musicians belted out ear-popping rhythms. There were flights of helium balloons (in Uzbekistan’s colors, blue, white and green), volleys of fireworks and canon shots covering spectators with glittering bits of confetti.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the entire stadium — Uzbeks, dignitaries, officials, guests and even the president — danced that night.

Earlier in the day, the Seattle-Tashkent Sister-City delegation participated by placing a basket of flowers at the shrine to the Happy Mother, a giant Madonna-like figure, adored by the Uzbeks as symbolic of their culture of inclusion.

But what lies ahead for this young nation? It’s difficult to say. There are still plenty of problems left over from the Soviet era, not least of which is an absolute dearth of credible news reporting. For example, two years after Libyan leader Mumar Gaddafi was killed Uzbeks have yet to hear of his death.

Here is a rundown of some of my other findings from the trip:

Neighborhoods: Seattle thinks it has strong local communities, but Tashkent does it one better. The city is organized into mahallas that govern social life and care for the vulnerable. If our lives in Seattle seem solitary, Uzbek life is different. There is a caring that gives meaning to the phrase: “it takes a village.” If you are thinking of divorce, your Uzbek neighbors likely will let you know that parting is a bad idea.

Councilmember Godden visit a first grade class at Tashkent School #28. (Photo by Jeff Godden)
Councilmember Godden visit a first grade class at Tashkent School #28. (Photo by Jeff Godden)

Education: Boys and girls both have access to universal education, although in the technological high school that we visited the girls definitely were in the minority.

The boys were being trained for engineering jobs, whereas the young women were designing fashions and undertaking art projects.

Language: Their proudest achievement is that, starting this year, English is being taught starting with grade one. The sister city delegation visited schools that first day to see the first graders learning the English words for fruits and vegetables.

The Mayor of Tashkent shared with me, through his interpreter, that, at 56, he still hasn’t learned to speak English. But he wants a different outcome for his constituents, half of whom are under the age of 18. He told me that, “after all, they — the children — are our future.”

Environment: There’s definitely room for improvement in Uzbek environmental practices such as water conservation. Cotton fields, a holdover from the Soviet years, are flooded annually, leading to unhealthy leaching of the soil. Nevertheless, the nation’s fertile valleys do produce exceptional fruits and vegetables, enormous lush grapes, mouth-melting melons and honeyed peaches. U.S. Ambassador George Krol recently held an economic conference in Tashkent to encourage farmers to work towards more processing of produce for export. There was significant interest.

Spice sellers at Tashkent's Bazar Chorsu market. (Photo by <a href=""> Ismael Alonso </a>via Flickr)
Spice sellers at Tashkent’s Bazar Chorsu market. (Photo by Ismael Alonso via Flickr)

Economy: There have been economic gains in the last decade, but the nation has barriers to overcome. For instance, you won’t see a Starbucks or McDonald’s in Uzbekistan, as international chains have not established a presence because of currency barriers.

Meanwhile, there has been a migration of workers to Russia in search of scarce jobs. Workers often have been able to send money home, but many leave their families with scant support. There are fears that Russia may restrict guest worker programs at some point.

Women: The sorry news is that women had more political clout during Soviet times, when they commanded one-third of the country’s parliament. Today that number, which once dipped to as low as three percent, is slowly improving. Men dominate in managerial and professional ranks.

There are two strong organizations, non-governmental charities, headquartered in nearby Samarkand that help women afflicted by domestic violence, one that helps them try to resume their lives, the other that helps them start small businesses through micro-loans.

Human rights: The human rights situation in Uzbekistan still retains an overlay of Soviet practice. This extends to the nation’s disregard for a free flow of information. News is tightly managed by local leaders who seem uninterested in reporting, balanced or otherwise. According to Human Rights Watch, torture is still endemic in the criminal justice system. Authorities also threaten and imprison activists and block international rights groups from operating in the country. And, although there are laws forbidding human trafficking, most will tell you — off the record — that it does exist.

Jean Godden with the delegation's Uzbek interpreter at the Seattle-Tashkent Peace Park. (Photo by Jeff Godden)
Jean Godden with the delegation’s Uzbek interpreter at the Seattle-Tashkent Peace Park. (Photo by Jeff Godden)

Seattle-Tashkent Peace Park: The park, built by volunteers from both cities, was established in Uzbekistan in 1988. More than 150 volunteers, mostly from King County, traveled the distance — 12 time zones — to build that park. The 10,000 tiles, made mostly by Seattle school children, were used to line irrigation channels.

The park is dominated by an amazing three-story-tall sculpture, fashioned by Seattle’s Rich Beyer, well-known for Fremont’s “Waiting for the Interurban.” The Tashkent artwork depicts four generations of a family, from seniors to babies, playing together peacefully. The park is in need of refurbishing, some of its tiles in disrepair, but the bench beside Beyer’s sculpture has been restored and remains as a memorial to those who worked to create a wonderful shared space.

The good news is that our Seattle-Tashkent Sister City Association remains one of our most active sister cities, still an example of a cultural connection between our peoples. It is led by co-chairs Dan Peterson and Diana Pearce. Pearce accompanied the delegation to Tashkent, helping to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the relationship. The partnership has resulted to almost 100 delegations, tours and meetings.

It is a proud history. We’re looking forward to another four decades of collaboration.