Cement is everywhere in modern Palestinian history. From the first sacks of Portland cement unloaded in Jaffa in the 1890s, to those clandestinely transported into the Gaza Strip through tunnels on the Egyptian border, cement has stood at the center of two of the defining experiences of Palestinian society since the late nineteenth century: modernity, writ large, and the encounter with Zionism. In presence and absence, it has intertwined with Palestinians’ everyday lives and political horizons in unique ways.
This article traces cement’s Palestinian biography through its formative stage, the period of British rule, 1918–1948. First, it examines Zionists’ continued attempts, rooted in the late Ottoman-period, to claim cement and concrete as materials of exclusive Jewish expertise. Then, it surveys cement’s political economy, shaped by the interplay between British interests, the Mandate’s legal structures, the Jewish-owned Nesher Portland Cement Company, and the initiatives of Palestinian capitalists. Analyzing the latter in the context of a broader Palestinian discourse about construction, the article demonstrates the crucial role accorded by Palestinians to building as part of a national and anti-colonial project. The repeated unraveling of such materialist nation-building endeavors, meanwhile, was the product of both the very real vicissitudes of Palestinian history and the abstractions of British racial thought and ideas about corporate personhood. Finally, the article discusses the transformation of cement from a material imbued with future promise to a “mournful commodity” – one which embodied the civilian crises of World War II in Palestine and the years immediately following.
Keywords: British Mandate; capitalism; colonialism; construction; labor; material history; nationalism; political economy; race.