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A worldly holiday event

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2002

The normally studious and staid great hall of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning gave way Sunday to a swirling, roiling, vibrant mix of holiday traditions from nearly 30 different world cultures.

It was the university's unique Nationality Rooms' annual holiday open house — and it was alive and kicking.

Folk dancers performed in the center of the hall for nearly four hours. Surrounding them, hearty tables full of ethnic foods — from sushi to pierogies — filled the first three floors of Pitt's signature building with the exotic aromas of an international bazaar.

Everywhere, men, women and children milled about in traditional costumes representing 26 nationalities from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Many were on hand to give hundreds of visitors free tours of the university's nationality rooms.

The rooms, which ring the building's first and third floors, provide examples of architecture, art and classroom materials to recreate classrooms from cultural periods prior to 1787, the year the university was founded. The committees who keep the rooms running work year-round developing educational and cultural exchange programs.

Yesterday's festival was a mix of Old World tradition and New World experimentation.

"It's kind of folk, but at the same time, we kind of made it up," said Tohfa Hasan, describing a dance she and her friends were presenting to showcase the culture of southern India. The 16-year-old from Fox Chapel said she and her friends based their dance on one they saw in a recent movie made in India. "It's really up-beat."

While Hasan waited to take the floor, a group of Scottish country dancers danced a "targe," a traditional victory dance Scottish clans used to dance after battle. The dancers — in plaid kilts and arisade — concluded their performance with another celebration, "Oh, My America," conceived as families gathered to leave Scotland for the United States.

The number stirred shouts and cries of "Yahoo!" from spectators.

Kay Donovan, a Mt. Lebanon pediatric physical therapist who spends two days a week working with the Pittsburgh Scottish Country Dance Society, said learning the dances and performing connects her to her McLean family heritage — but mostly, "It's a lot of fun."

Pitt's Chancellor John Bowman came up with the idea for the nationality rooms during fund-raising for the Cathedral during the 1920s, explained Joseph Bielecki, a South Side attorney who chairs the committee which maintains the Czechoslovak room. Bielecki has become an unofficial historian of the nationality rooms.

Bowman didn't limit his efforts to raising cash for the cathedral to the moneyed classes, Bielecki said. The chancellor went to steel towns and challenged immigrants, many of them uneducated, to support the university and its symbol of a brighter future for their children.

He was amazed at the outpouring of support, Bielecki said. At one meeting in Duquesne, immigrants promised to do without meat for a month — and send their savings to Pitt. Some men promised to go without a new suit for a year.

A Slovakian volunteer fire chief roused his company to ready the fire truck.

"The fire chief said, 'You must be like fire truck. Fire truck does not stop for red lights. You have good ideas. Do not stop for red lights,' " Bielecki said.

"And they drove him back to the chancellor's mansion in Oakland and blew every single red light along the way. … And he never ever experienced anything like this. This was a profound experience."

The university, wishing to tap this energy, developed the nationality rooms. Today, communities are still rallying to build them. Currently, four community organizations representing Swiss, Welsh, Turkish and Philippine culture are each trying to raise the $300,000 commitment to finance the elaborate design and construction of the rooms and support the continued endowment of scholarships. The scholarships sponsor Pitt students who wish to do research or study overseas.

The rooms are big productions, designed by architects licensed in their home countries and often displaying materials and art imported or donated from them.

The Czechoslovak room contains roof beams of linden wood felled in the Carpathian Mountains. Planners for the Swiss room wish to bring in master craftsmen from Switzerland to install intricate woodwork uncommon in America.

"You never know where these little rooms are going to take you," Bielecki said. "They're not dusty little museum rooms."

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