Deservedly acclaimed by the most important international festivals, TASTE OF CEMENT by the Syrian director, Ziad Kalthoum, has been entirely created on the dual theme of construction and destruction, adapting to the twists of war, from Lebanon in the 1980s to Syria today, an unjust relay, an evil karma.
TASTE OF CEMENT is dedicated to all those workers in exile and, foremost, the Syrians.
Carried up on lifts to dizzying heights, towards the azure and somnolent skies above Beirut, like industrious teams of ants moving about in their fluorescent safety jackets. And then, down into twilight darkness, sinking into the bowels of the underground, shadows, invisible to the rest of the city. Silent, forgotten, unseen, immersed in the rhythmic sounds of the building site – the beating of metal, the planing of wood, the grinding of the cement-mixer, the bolting and unbolting of iron bars.
They are the surgeons of Beirut’s reconstruction, the building workers operating on the drilled and bored bodies of a city arising again from a painful past.
Syrian refugees, forced to leave their own country devastated by war, to reach another country just emerging from a war. But it will start again, or so that armored tank wants to remind us as it makes an appearance every so often throughout the film, moving through the rubble of a destroyed city. Aleppo, today? Beirut, yesterday? Beirut, tomorrow? What difference does it make, there will be another war in Lebanon, destroying yet again the houses, buildings, skyscrapers, lives. And then the Syrian workers, who now live hidden away in the skeletons of the buildings rising up, will return home to rebuild their own country.
A cruel carousel. Construction, destruction, reconstruction. Flows of cement, like volcanic lava, swampy ground where the workers’ rubber boots sink down, between one war and another. The cement is life and death.
A voice-over can be heard alternating with the mechanical sounds of the building site, recounting the memories of one of the many refugees, no one in particular, just one of the many. He, like his father is a construction worker.
“When the civil war ended, my father came to work in Lebanon as a builder […] I used to come home from school and I could immediately smell that he had returned […], the smell of cement on his hands, we could smell it even in the food. It disappeared when my father left again […], the palms of his hands were the city of Beirut […]. When he returned from Lebanon, he would take me to the sea, the first time that I saw it from the kitchen I wanted to dive in […], then he returned to build our house with his own hands that smelled of cement.”
Many Syrians went to help in reconstructing Lebanon after the long civil war (1975-1990) that clearly marked the divisions in the Country of Cedars.
Lebanon is a complicated mosaic of religious and ethnic factions, an unstable but essential mix of Maronite Christians (the minority), Muslims split between Sunnites and Shiites, the Druze concentrated in the south of the country, and thousands of Palestinian refugees (about 10% of the population) mainly in refugee camps. In the last two years, about 2 million Syrian refugees have arrived, out of a total population of 6 million inhabitants.
The very fragile agreement existing among the divided powers that has entrusted the Presidency of the Republic to the Maronite Christians, the Premiership to the Sunnites and the Presidency of the Parliament to the Shiites, is mirrored in an ethnic and demographic photograph taken by the French in 1932, and never to be repeated so as not to alter the religious equilibrium.
A fragile equilibrium, constantly eroded away by the religious cracks caused by the different regional actors who vie to control the country. The presence of Assad’s Syria has lasted 30 years, that of the Israeli troops (1982-2000) 18 years. Lebanon is a Pandora’s box risking, once again, to be opened by the deepening split that is overtaking the Islamic world, between the Shiites and the Sunnites, alias the geopolitical clash between Shiite Iran and Sunnite Saudi Arabia to control the Middle East.
In the middle, there is Israel which has declared itself ready to fight once again Hezbollah, the Shiite militia-party of Hassan Nasrallah.
This would be the third Israeli-Lebanese war after those of 1982 and 2006. The first, begun with an Israeli invasion to uproot, once and for all, from Lebanon territory, the presence of the PLO, established in Lebanon after having been kicked out of Jordan during the famous Black September of 1970. The operation was a military success for the Israelis who had occupied the south of the country (from 1984 to 2000) with the South Lebanon Army, the Maronite Christian militia, financed and trained by the Israelis themselves.
This is the climate of occupation and anti-Israeli resistance, the humus in which Hezbollah has taken seed and thrived, the Iranian Islamic militia, strengthened after the second war with Israel in 2006, which exposed Lebanon for 3 months to a heavy Israeli offensive (with over 1,000 air raids).
A bombarding of Hezbollah’s military emplacements in the country’s south resulting in huge damages to the national infrastructures. From then, and over the years, Hezbollah, the “Party of God”, in all respects an operative arm of Teheran, has seen a continual increase in its military and political might.
According to estimates, it is claimed to have more than 20,000 trained fighters and 100,000 missiles, able to easily reach strategic military points in Israel, starting with its air bases. Nasrallah’s men have shown themselves to be the best of all the Arab forces, while, politically, Hezbollah firmly holds Lebanon in its hands with its strong presence in Parliament.
The risk that a clash between Israel and Hezbollah will become another war between Israel and Lebanon or, even spread, involving all the region is extremely high. The breaking up of Lebanon with a scenario of a post-Saddam Iraq or even worse, a Syria model, is unsustainable for all the actors involved due to the worries about the recent convergence between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the US rhetoric against Iran. The latter now being stronger than ever after its successes in Iraq and Syria, its hold in Yemen and the consolidation of its position in Lebanon thanks to Hezbollah’s clear military superiority over its region rivals and also compared to the national Lebanese army.
Riyadh, for specular reasons, needs an international coup to fuel the nationalist Wahhabi rhetoric on which the Saudi dinasty lies.
However, none of the main players is anxious to tear to pieces Lebanon and hand over another country to jihad extremism after the defeats suffered by ISIS in Siria and Iraq.
Lebanon is too fragmented in its sectarian co-existence to become another area of conflict between Riyadh and Teheran, the only certain outcome being to weaken the country even more. And to mix up more cement.
The Syrians reconstruct what the war has destroyed while at the same time their homes in Syria are razed to the ground. Workers by day, refugees by night, trapped in cement, forced to live imprisoned in the underground of the building site.
“Curfew for the Syrian workers begins at 7 pm. Violation will be punished by law”, it is written on a banner over the gates of the sites.
At night, they watch the TV following their war on their mobiles, they flick through the images of Aleppo while the news announces that another war is about to begin in Libya “supported by David Cameron for the strategic importance of the area […].”
“When your palms are worn out, stop counting the days, times comes to a standstill and you no longer remember the day when, for the first time, you came down … your finger become hard, like stones. The cement eats away your skin, and not only your soul.”