Winter 2006 (14.4)
Cities: Baku and Houston
30 Years as Sister Cities
by Maud Beck
here in the heart of Houston, we've discovered a very unique
relationship with the city of Baku that has existed since the
1970s. Houston and Baku are Sister Cities and in 2006, they celebrated
their 30th Jubilee.
"Sister Cities" was an initiative that was established
during the Administration of U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower
(1953-1961). Eisenhower knew the real face of war.
During World War II, he had served both as the First Supreme
Commander of NATO and as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces
in Europe, which had the responsibility for some of the determining
battles in France and Germany in 1944-45.
Above (Left): Houston Delegates visit Baku in October
1979. Standing: Baku Mayor A. Mammadov congratulates his Sister
City guests from Houston-Douwe de Vries and his wife Robbie,
seated at right.
Right: Houston delegation presenting Bluebonnet
painting to Mayor in Baku: Left: Mayor Mammadov, Robbie and Douwe
de Vries; Mike Scorcio and his wife Ruth. October 1979.
During his Presidency (1953-1961),
Eisenhower proposed a "people-to-people" network between
the United States and other countries in an effort to diminish
the chance of future world conflicts. Local municipalities in
the U.S. were encouraged to develop partnerships with cities
in other countries to create global cooperation, cultural understanding
and economic development. These programs were to be based on
two-way communication that would mutually benefit both communities.
That's when Houston's Mayor Louis Welch took the first steps
to create a bond between two of the world's oil capitals - Houston
and Baku. The official relationship - the Houston-Baku Sister
City Association (HBSCA) - was established in April 1976. Since
then, HBSCA has operated on a volunteer basis as a non-profit
organization. It is under the umbrella of Houston Sister Cities
International and works in close partnership with the Houston
Mayor's office as well as the Azerbaijan Embassy in Washington,
The DeVries Visit
In our quest here at the Association for more stories about the
old days, we came across the names of a well-known Houston couple,
Douwe de Vries and his wife Robbie. In 1975, Douwe was appointed
Chair of HBSCA and Robbie became co-chair. Born and raised in
the Netherlands, Douwe had a Master's Degree from Delft University
and had worked with Royal Dutch Shell on assignment in the deserts
of New Mexico and West Texas in the 1950s. He was well known
in the oil industry for his expertise in drilling and completion
technologies. Later on, he was awarded for his innovations in
deepwater drilling with the Holley Medal by the American Society
of Mechanical Engineers International.
As manager of Soviet Projects, he had made more than 40 trips
to the Soviet Union, including Baku. Tall and distinguished in
appearance and with an impressive background in the oil industry,
Douwe was an excellent choice to help establish this first relationship
with the Soviet Union for Houston. Robbie, his energetic wife
was from Oklahoma and had a degree in Business Administration
and Journalism. Together, they blazed the trails of the first
Sister City Association for Houston in the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, we missed the chance to sit down and talk with
Douwe as he had passed away in January 2006 from leukemia, but
we were able to meet with Robbie who graciously welcomed us at
her lovely home in Houston. The walls of her living room were
covered with photos and paintings - each object brimming with
memories of the culturally rich, international lives that she
and her husband had shared.
It didn't take long to find some of her memories of Azerbaijan
in the midst of them. There was a striking picture of a cosmonaut
entirely made out of tiny pearl beads that a Baku schoolchild
had made. As well, there was a pair of stuffed Azerbaijani woolen
leggings still in their polyester case. A miniature carpet from
the town of Guba in northern Azerbaijan adorned the mantelpiece.
Left: Soviet Delegation visiting Houston in July 1983:
(left to right): Douwe de Vries; Mayor Ahmadov from Baku; Robbie
de Vries; Mayor Tarazevitch from Minsk.
Robbie told us how she
and her husband had hosted numerous Soviet delegations in Houston.
Often these groups included visitors from Baku.
Once she was asked by the State Department to organize the visit
of three mayors, the head of the USSR Sister Cities Association
along with their KGB Interpreter. The mayors of the cities of
Minsk, Voronezh and Baku were coming to town and needed to be
shown around and entertained. So the de Vries hosted a reception
at their home on the lake with Texan representatives of the oil
They also arranged for visits to the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA), Houston Ship Channel, YMCA, Houston
Symphony, some Universities, City Hall and the Sam Houston Park.
They also took their guests to a Texas rodeo after a shopping
trip to find the appropriate Western clothes. The vodka would
flow and with it so many grandiose speeches about friendship
Trip to Baku
In 1979 the Baku City Council invited a Houston delegation to
visit them. Since Mayor Jim McConn was busy, he appointed Douwe
and Robbie to represent him. Michael Scorcio from the Houston
Port of Authority would join them. The visit was scheduled for
October 7-13, 1979, which gave them only three weeks to prepare
for the trip. No budget was available although the host government
had promised to take care of the guests once they arrived in
the USSR. But they had to purchase their own airline tickets
roundtrip to Moscow.
Meeting of Houston-Baku
Sister City Association (HBSCA) in Houston's City Hall: Left:
former President Sara Rozin, Founding Co-Chair Robbie de Vries,
Director of Houston International Protocol Alliance Deanea K.
LeFlore, current President Irada Akhundova and Board Member Riad
Right: Soviet Delegation to Houston. Left to
Right: Mayor Tarazevitch of Minsk, Douwe (behind) and Robbie
de Vries, Mayor Ahmadov of Baku, Mr. Petsov as Head of Sister
Cities Soviet Union, Mayor of Voronezh and Mr. Chibisinko who
served as Interpreter. 1980s in Houston.
Douwe already had a basic command
of the Russian language, but together he and Robbie attended
some evening classes to learn some basic Russian conversation
and familiarize themselves with the Cyrillic script. Meetings
were held with the Sister City Association to determine a basic
plan of activities for the delegation and select gifts.
They took the following gifts: silver key to the city Houston,
bronze medallions with the Houston emblem, music scores, autographed
art books, space photographs and posters from NASA, Crepe Myrtle
seedlings from the Houston Arboretum, a beautiful oil painting
by Frank Dill of a bluebonnet and cactus covered landscape which
was to be presented to the Mayor of Baku. Bluebonnet seeds. They
packed them in a couple of footlockers to be shipped to Baku.
On October 7, 1979, they were welcomed at the airport by the
members of the City Council Gabil Fataliyev, Tofig Malik-Abbasov
and Samaya Aliyeva. From there they went to the Azerbaijan Hotel
on the Boulevard. They were chauffeured through the city in Chaika
limousines with a police escort to the official meetings with
the Mayor and his Council members in the City Hall.
Under the auspices of the
Houston-Baku Sister City Association, Azerbaijani youth participated
in the Houston International Festival this past year.
Right: Azerbaijani youth perform traditional
folk dances at the United Nations' Food Festival in Houston this
Excursions were organized to
the oil refinery and some of the offshore oil fields [Oil Rocks].
They also visited an air conditioner factory, a middle school
and the Temple of Fire (Ateshgah) in the suburbs of Baku. They
also met with composer Fikrat Amirov (1922-1984) and poet Nabi
Of course, they climbed the city's landmark monument Maiden Tower,
and took walks along the Boulevard. From the Kirov Park [now
called "Shahidlar Khiyabani" or Martyrs' Lane], they
had magnificent views of the city. [The Kirov statue was dismantled
in 1992 after Azerbaijan gained its independence. Search at AZER.com].
But most of all, they were impressed with the rich culture and
the people's sincere curiosity about America. Azerbaijani hospitality
was unforgettable: dinners with Caspian caviar, sturgeon and
kababs, accompanied with many toasts and speeches and, of course,
the delicious Azerbaijani tea served in the traditional pear-shaped
Robbie's most vivid memory is how Mayor Aydin Mammadov played
the violin for the school children, who, in turn, begged her
to dance with them. A shy dancer, she improvised some swirls
amidst cheers and applause. She says she can only hope that other
Texans have since performed a proper two-step dance for them
to set the record straight!
Thanks to Douwe and Robbie's energy and efforts and despite the
Iron Curtain, the two cities with so much in common established
a lasting friendship. During the years that followed, an alliance
was forged and strengthened by numerous reciprocal visits in
the 1980s. Today, Robbie is an honorary member of HBSCA and still
stays involved with some of the organization's activities.
Left: Irada Akhundova, President
of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association (HBSCA) meeting with
Mehriban Aliyeva, wife of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev
in Washington, D.C. in December 2006.
Right: Supporting the Azerbaijani team at the
2006 Annual Sister Cities Soccer Tournament in Houston.
In the early 1990s, due to changes
in world politics and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the activities
of HBSCA diminished for a while, but by the mid-1990s, as plans
were being made for the BTC pipeline between Baku via Georgia
and Turkey to the world energy market, activities of the association
Especially these past 10 years, ties between Houston and Azerbaijan
have grown substantially. Many Azerbaijanis themselves now live
in Houston, as they are active here in the oil industry. And
now there are many more Americans who have lived in Baku or traveled
there on business. The Houston-Baku Sister City Association takes
part in the Houston International Festival and the United Nations'
Food Festival. In addition, they've arranged cultural performances
and art exhibitions, hosted business delegations from Azerbaijan
and brought the community together to celebrate Azerbaijan's
national holidays. HBSCA welcomes new members and volunteers
to get involved and join them. Contact: HOUSTONBAKU.com.
Maud Bech is a Board Member
of the Houston-Baku Sister City Association (HBSCA). Her keen
interest in Azerbaijan started when she was on assignment with
UNOCAL in Baku from 1995 to 1999. HBSCA President Irada Akhundova
and Art Director Saida Fagala also contributed to this article.
AI 14.4 (Winter
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