The quiet of a Saturday night in Bethlehem is broken at ten to midnight by the screech of wheels on asphalt. Betty Saadeh is speeding past the ancient Church of the Nativity in her red Golf GTI, perfectly manicured nails tipped with silver glitter gripping the wheel, a pair of six-inch heels at the pedals.
She’s wearing a figure-hugging black dress and has spent the afternoon in the salon having extensions added to her blonde hair: tonight she’s celebrating. The 32-year-old mother of two became -- officially -- the fastest woman on the West Bank yesterday when she won the women’s championship in Palestine’s speed test series, driving the same Golf she’s now parking up in the city center.
It, too, has undergone a transformation. This morning it was still a shell, metal innards exposed as the interior was stripped of all but her bucket racing seat. But her mechanic, Maher, restored it to normality this afternoon and now the only signs of yesterday’s action are the remains of the racing stickers that covered the exterior. One on the passenger door displays in large red letters the name of Palestine’s first and only female race team: the Speed Sisters.
Brash, beguiling, and fast, the team of six women is changing the face of motorsports in traditionally conservative Palestine.
Saadeh’s out on the town with teammate Noor Daoud, a striking, sports-obsessed 22-year-old who drives a blacked-out BMW. As the pair enter a nightclub in the basement of the grand Jacir Palace Hotel they turn heads, although they seem not to notice.
“Did you see the article in the paper today?” Saadeh shouts over her shoulder to Daoud, her words almost lost to the Dr. Dre and Rihanna beats blaring from the speakers. “It said ‘Betty: Queen of Cars!’ My mechanic told me the guys were all watching my laps asking, ‘Did she beat us? Did she beat us?’”
“You beat so many guys!” Daoud shouts back with a grin as she signals to the barman.
Brash, beguiling, and fast, the team of six women is changing the face of motorsports in traditionally conservative Palestine. They compete on an equal level with men at races held around the West Bank, in front of thousands, shredding stereotypes in their tire tracks.
With both Christian and Muslim members and an age range of 20 to 35, the Speed Sisters are a group of women united by a hunger to race. In the land-locked Palestinian territories where space is at a premium and there’s an absence of long stretches of checkpoint-free road, racers have to find suitable areas -- a disused helipad in Bethlehem, a closed marketplace in Jenin -- where the can compete in speed tests on obstacle courses.
But as Daoud and Saadeh take to the dance floor, drinks in jewelry-clad hands, there’s no hint of the world of oil, sweat, and blisters they occupied only yesterday.
At dusk on Thursday in the ancient eastern town of Jericho, the roar of engines and metallic stench of fuel filter down towards the town center from a hilltop car park that’s become a temporary home for Palestine’s community of racers. It’s the evening before the final race of the season, and all of the 55 cars taking part need to be checked and registered.
Groups of men stand around chatting and smoking, grunting appreciatively at an array of makes and models -- since any is eligible to compete -- enjoying the opportunity to exchange stories and check out the competition. The Jericho Cable Car next door links the town to biblical site The Mount of Temptation, and drivers of heavily laden tour buses use their horns to negotiate an exit with the line of race cars still trying to get in. Bemused bus-trippers look on, powerless.
Saadeh enters the melee with Daoud. Both are dressed in jeans and sneakers, hair tied back, giving two kisses of welcome to some of the male racers as they make their way to the makeshift registration office accompanied by Saadeh’s family. She comes from good racing stock. Her brother George is the speed test champion of 2009 and will also be competing tomorrow. Their father Jalil is a former rally champion in his native Mexico. It put Saadeh in the unusual position of being persuaded by her parents to race.
“I used to say, ‘But Mom, it’s all boys!’” she laughs. “But when I tried it, I discovered this adrenaline inside me like my father and brother. Back then, there were just three girls racing, and at first even some of the guys I’m greeting now used to laugh at us. Then when we started beating them they got mad, but now it’s better as they are used to us. Most tell me ‘Mahbrook!,’ -- ‘Congratulations!’”
But not all Speed Sisters have found it so easy. Marah Zahalka, 20, a business student from the conservative town of Jenin, is one of the youngest members, the reigning women’s champion, and a gearhead who started driving at the age of 10, when she’d stack pillows on the driving seat of her mother’s Volkswagen Golf and disappear off into the neighborhood. These days she still races her mother’s car, but this time with her permission.
Zahalka’s parents -- her mother, a driving instructor, and her father, a dental technician -- have supported their daughter throughout her short racing career, with her father even working longer hours to help pay for it. But her conservative relatives were not so easily convinced. “When my aunts and uncles found out I was racing, they thought I was just showing off for a group of guys,” she says, leaning against the parking lot wall. “They were so upset they stopped talking to me and my family.”
Zahalka continued to race regardless, proving to be one of the top women drivers in the country, not only beating the other women, but finishing in the top 10 overall. Now that she’s proven herself they’re starting to come around. “Now they see it as a sport they have started to change their minds,” she says, “but it’s hard.”
Changing these sorts of attitudes is one of the reasons the Speed Sisters team officially came into being in 2010, when an employee of the British Consulate General in Jerusalem heard about the small number of women racing and decided to help. The Consulate brought out British race driving coaches and donated helmets, race suits, an old BMW for practice, and came up with the all-important name to give the women a stronger identity, which would also hopefully attract more sponsors.
Motorsports is expensive the world over, and Palestine is no exception. Just one set of race tires costs well over $1,000, and finding funding here is no easy task. All the Speed Sisters rely on help from their families to keep them in competition, in addition to every spare shekel from their wages.
For Zahalka and fellow Speed Sister Mona Ennab, 25, a self-professed tomboy who stands next to her wearing an oversized sweater, the cost of fixing their damaged cars has proved too high to race tomorrow. Still, they’ve traveled from their West Bank hometowns to Jericho to cheer on the team from the sidelines and celebrate the end of the season, but Zahalka’s hopes of defending her title have been dashed.
Despite their disappointment, evidence of the positive effect the team is having is close by. On the other side of the parking lot a smartly dressed slip of a girl is clutching a clipboard to her chest and trotting to keep up with a team of middle-aged officials in dirty overalls who are doing the rounds of inspection. Hadeel Jaradat is a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student and the Speed Sisters’ latest recruit -- despite the fact she can’t drive. Her chess-expert father has finally given in and is giving her lessons.
“My father says in chess always imagine your opponent is the most clever person in the world,” Jaradat said earlier, laughing, “and on the road always assume the other drivers are the most stupid!”
For now Jaradat is learning on the job, eagerly helping the Motorsport Federation mechanics assess the race cars. She is one of only three women in a class of 300 studying mechanical engineering at the university in Ramallah, despite her parents begging her to choose a more “suitable” career for a woman, her mother lamenting that the underside of a car is no place for a lady. But Jaradat remained steadfast, and couldn’t believe her good fortune when she discovered the Speed Sisters.
“That helped my parents to see that mechanical engineering can have a future in Palestine for a woman,” she says. “I can be here learning and checking the cars before the races. Seeing these women race also gave me a big boost in self-esteem. I want to be racing with them by March.”
When Jaradat finishes registering the last cars, night has set in and thoughts turn to the race tomorrow. As a line forms to leave, the mass exodus of souped-up cars can be heard for miles as they burn their way back to town.
Race day in Palestine starts early. The sun has barely made it over the distant Jordanian mountains overlooking Jericho when the first racers start doing doughnuts on the scrubland behind the large concrete area that will host the competition. It lies on the eastern border of the Palestinian territories, in the shadow of a fortified Israeli checkpoint that is manned by a single guard, who observes the preparations from his tower.
The speed test series is a great source of pride for Palestinians, since there is no Israeli equivalent. “They would love to come and race here,” says a Federation official known as Monty as he looks up to the blue and white flag visible above the trees. “But the way things are that’s just not possible.”
The first spectators have also arrived, buying grilled corn-on-the-cobs from vending stalls that set up some time in the pre-dawn hours. Some fans have already clambered onto the corrugated roofs of the shelters surrounding the course to bag the best view. On the spectator side of a start/finish arch draped in Palestinian flags is the makeshift VIP area, where pictures of Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas hang behind rows of white plastic chairs. Palestinian security police dressed in blue and black camo uniforms stand in groups chatting, waiting like everyone else for the action to begin.
As the crowd gathers, Saadeh, wearing a red race suit, walks the course with her brother George, familiarizing herself with the route around the cone slaloms and tire corridors before racing begins. Daoud is crouched next to her black BMW behind the course, with her black-and-yellow race suit rolled down to the waist, carefully attaching a number 53 sticker as rapt kids look on. The car’s interior has been reduced to an industrial-looking shell, its insides stripped out to save weight. Daoud’s mother, who runs a designer clothing boutique in Ramallah where Daoud works, gave her the car. It’s the same one she used to strap Daoud into as an 8-year-old girl, a time when neither of them could have imagined where it would end up. “Yeah she was a bit shocked when she first saw it,” Daoud says in husky tones, “but she just wants me to be happy.”
Daoud, a natural-born sportswoman who has competed professionally in boxing, tennis, and soccer, began drift racing on the streets of Ramallah in 2008 and was spotted by the head of the Motorsports Federation, Khaled Qadura. Thanks to the American passport she inherited from her estranged father, she has also recently been selected to drive in the new Formula Two series in Israel after beating more than 7,000 people to one of the 10 places available.
“I’ve loved cars since I was young,” she says, her brown eyes squinting against the sun. “Someone once asked me, ‘What do you prefer? Car racing or sex?’ And I said car racing without hesitation. It’s a beautiful thing. When the car gives me power, I control it, I’m the master. There’s no other adrenaline rush like it. When I go to Israel it will be a completely different sort of racing, but I’m going to be good. I’m going to show the world what Palestinians are capable of.”
At 9 a.m., racing gets underway. The Speed Sisters watch from their own designated area now, complete with 34-year-old team manager and sixth team member Maysoon Jayyusi who has just arrived from her boutique in Ramallah, bringing with her yellow-branded Speed Sisters t-shirt and caps, and a large banner bearing their logo.
An almost exclusively male crowd, three bodies deep, lines all sides of the course. Kids stand on cans to get a better view as men hold their phones outstretched to record the action. Loud Arabic pop music blares out of portable speakers as a quiffed announcer introduces each driver in turn, before they force their cars tightly around the obstacles with screeches of protest from the tires, engulfing a seemingly grateful crowd in thick smoke.
Each driver has two runs before the top 10 fastest go for a third time to decide the winner. Though all cars are in competition, they’re also divided into five power classes, and Saadeh’s first run is a tidy 1:59.00 for her GTI. Daoud is not so lucky, taking a wrong turn right at the end of her run, classed as a ‘wrong road.’ Her car’s also overheating. “I’m going to really go for it next time,” she says standing by her steaming vehicle afterwards. “And if it burns, let it burn!”
The Speed Sisters have inspired another woman to come and race with them today. Sahar Jawabrah, a 44-year-old schoolteacher, saw footage of the Speed Sisters on TV and wanted to have a try herself. She now occasionally turns up to tests and is the only woman ever to have raced wearing the hijab. This is her fourth ever appearance, and as before, she has turned up alone.
She completes a slow-but-respectable lap, and drives off the course smiling, hiding her face with embarrassment as the crowds cheer through her windows. “My family doesn’t like this sort of thing,” she says after her run. “But I love it as it’s a kind of freedom. I saw the Speed Sisters doing it and thought, ‘If them, why not me?’”
Daoud starts her second run with a doughnut spin that draws huge cheers from the crowd, a grin visible on her lips through the smoke. But her overheated car has to be wrestled around the course, and she won’t be the one woman to progress to the top 10.
That honor is for Saadeh, who produced an even quicker run to secure her place among the men. She now poses for pictures with male fans in the break before the shoot-out, as the announcer comes in search of reigning women’s champion Zahalka to ask her to explain why she’s not competing. Sitting on the floor in front of the safety rail, she shyly takes the mic and explains her car trouble to the 1,500-strong crowd. They give her a consolatory cheer as she smiles with embarrassment, pleased, nonetheless, that her absence has been acknowledged.
When the final phase of the day’s racing gets under way it’s almost 6 p.m., and the cheers are at their loudest. Saadeh increases the volume with a doughnut spin as she pulls up to the start, the Black Eyed Peas’ “Boom Boom Pow” blaring out from the speakers. She weaves nimbly between the slalom cones, finishing a neat lap with her best time of the day, a 1:54.57. With the other more powerful, modified cars of the remaining men also performing well, she doesn’t crack the top five, but she’s won the women’s championship and come out on top of her otherwise all-male GTI class.
As the crowd swarms the course to congratulate the winners, Saadeh stands on her car hood under the start/finish arch, posing for the cameras and looking down at a sea of mobile phones as her teammates look on. The Speed Sisters are at the end of another successful year, helping Palestinian motorsports’ popularity thrive.
“The act of Palestinian women racing for me is so important,” says Zahalka from the sidelines. “It shows real freedom. Everywhere people think Palestinian women are held back, but actually here we are racing in a sport that is known as a man’s. Racing lets people know the Palestinian people can never be trapped in a hole. We go out and we race, just like any place in the world.”
Check out the March 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands February 14) for more. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.