“It’s women racing cars in the Middle East. What more do you need to know? It’s the coolest thing on earth.”
Amber Fares is laughing as she talks. “I mean, if I have to explain this, what more can I say? They’re strong, funny, dynamic women and Palestine is under a military occupation. You can imagine the kind of adventures they get into.”
Betty Saadeh, a driver whose softly spoken voice belies her glamorous image, is also laughing. “Racing is in my blood and always has been,” she says with the suggestion of a smile. “I feel powerful, I feel fun, you know. It’s like a gift. For me, when I’m behind the wheel it’s like I’m the happiest girl ever.”
It’s just gone noon and we’re discussing the Speed Sisters, the first all-women race car driving team in the Middle East, and a whole range of emotions are flying around. Laughter, anger, frustration and pride fill the air. With a name more suited to a Hollywood blockbuster than a Palestinian racing team, the Speed Sisters are “resisting a reality that diminishes their dreams, that tells them their future is small”. So runs promotional material for director Fares’ upcoming documentary of the same name.
“The rest of the world don’t believe what we do,” adds Saadeh, who with dyed blonde hair, pink lipstick and stylish sunglasses is the epitome of beauty on four wheels. “They think that in Palestine girls are only at home, that they don’t have a life, that they don’t have anything. But that’s not true. We’re just normal people that want to do our sports. Maybe we can show the world that women from Palestine are smart, are talented, and are beautiful.”
Photographer Tanya Habjouqa, who is based in East Jerusalem and recently won a 2014 World Press Photo award for her series Occupied Pleasures, shot a number of photographs of the five women (four racers and a manager who sometimes takes to the track) back in 2012. Her pictures – part glamour and beauty amidst an arid and rolling landscape pockmarked by Israeli occupation – provide a portrait of the drivers’ reality via a blend of gritty realism and fashion sensibility. In one, Noor Daoud practices in the car park of Israel’s Ofer Prison, where two Palestinian teenagers were shot and killed during Nakba Day protests on 15 May. In another, Mona Ennab leans out of a car’s window beside the Qalandia checkpoint during iftar; the murals, graffiti and slogans of Palestinian resistance dominating the West Bank barrier to her left.
As Habjouqa made apparent in her images, open space is limited in the West Bank. Rallies may be held in Jericho, Hebron, Jenin, Bethlehem and Ramallah, but they are often impromptu, with no professional racetrack for drivers to train and race on. Yet, despite restrictions on movement, the Palestinian Motor Sports and Motorcycle Federation has been erecting makeshift tracks for more than five years, with the women competing directly with male drivers for an overall championship title. There is a title for the fastest women, as well as numerous awards for different car classes and motor types, but ultimately the women compete directly with the men. At our time of talking, Saadeh is in second place and eager to take the top spot.
“The speed sisters represent the viability, diversity, and possibility of what the Occupied Territories could be – passionate youth chasing their dreams, representing the many faces of Palestine,” says Habjouqa. “It shows the spirit of young people, young women, refusing to be held down. Beyond checkpoints, beyond perceived gender inequities. They may have initiated laughs in the beginning, but they more than earned the respect of their male race car colleagues and fans alike.”
As would be expected in an occupied land and within a society often viewed by the outside world as conservative, Marah Zahalka, Noor Daoud, Betty Saadeh, Mona Ennab and manager Maysoon Jayyusi have all faced challenges, not least occasional family disapproval, the frowns of society and the suffocating oppression and drudgery of Israeli occupation. Without sponsorship, the dream of racing abroad, of having race-winning cars, and achieving global recognition are also pipe dreams for most of the girls.
The landscape too is dotted with challenges. Checkpoints, roadblocks and settlements litter the West Bank like confetti, while much of Area C, which makes up 60 per cent of the West Bank, is inaccessible to Palestinians. Many of the drivers cannot even leave the increasingly walled in environment that they call home. “I feel freedom when I drive fast but there isn’t enough space to do rally driving,” says Jayyusi. “If you go out of the city centres, where the people are crowded, and go to the countryside, you start to enter areas under the Israeli occupation, so you can’t race there. Practicing is also a problem. Sometimes in Jenin they go to the old fruit and vegetable market, which is closed on Fridays, and in Ramallah the municipality gave us a small area to train on near one of the checkpoints. But we couldn’t find a lot of places to train, just places here and there.”
In such circumstances, races provide a release from the pressures of everyday life.
On race days, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of predominantly male spectators can be seen lining rooftops, scaling barriers, and cheering and waving flags. Here and there they film and photograph the drivers, eager to catch a glimpse of women who have already become stars in their own right. Daoud in particular is a favourite. Born in Texas, her wild hair is caught by the wind as she drifts effortlessly around cones placed along makeshift tracks; smoke billowing from the tyres of her BMW 2JZ GTE Twin Turbo. “When I drive I’m in control. I take out all my frustration and all my fears. When I drive, I only see open road,” she tells Fares on film.
As Habjouqa once wrote: “Daoud is a daughter of the diaspora whose life has taken her around the world – from boarding school in Switzerland to sports studies in the US state of Florida. However, while she chooses to focus on sports, not politics, she still has vivid memories of crossing checkpoints in East Jerusalem and emptying her backpack for soldiers on her way to and from school. While she is devoted to racing, you can find her assisting her mother’s Ramallah-based haute couture clothing store, at times teetering in Prada heels and Dolce & Gabbana dresses until she bolts out the door to practise.”
“In the beginning, many people were like ‘why is a girl racing with the guys’,” says Saadeh, who was born in Mexico, moved to the West Bank in the 1990s and works at the Mexican consulate in Ramallah. “But when I started getting good scores I won respect. I won respect because I had been driving for years. My dad was a racer, my brother’s a racer, so they taught me to drive since I was 13 or 14 years old. What else was there to do? We’re under occupation. There’s nothing much fun to do, so racing provides us with fun, with an opportunity to enjoy ourselves.”
“We had many issues when we were trying to film,” adds Fares, who has been working on a feature length documentary about the sisters since 2010. “One of the girls was shot at with tear gas when they were trying to train. We’ve been stopped by the IDF a few times and the police have asked us for our passports and stopped us when we were filming. But in general people here have been very, very supportive of the film. One of the biggest challenges we have is financial. Having enough money to actually pay people to work for you and to complete the film has been extremely difficult.”
The documentary, however, has received financial support from hundreds of sources, including the Sundance Institute and the BritDoc Foundation, as well as a $10,000 grant from Art for Freedom, a global digital initiative launched by Madonna and VICE in September last year.
“There is life that exists in Palestine. People forget this,” adds Fares, who lives in Ramallah. “There’s hope, there’s inspiration, and I think these women will go on to inspire people to follow their dreams, whether it be racing, whether it be sports, whether it be something else. Having that kind of inspiration coming from a place like Palestine really says a lot.
“In every other place in the world there’s not one single story that dominates. There are a lot of different variants at play. But in Palestine there’s one story that is coming out and is being portrayed to the world. It’s not like everyone is living like the Speed Sisters, it’s not like everybody is wearing the niqab and is veiled. Everything in between exists. What I find really interesting is that, historically, if you look at women’s participation in Palestinian society, they’ve always been very actively involved in the intifadas, they’ve always been very actively involved in the resistance. They are teachers, they’re politicians, they’re very active in society in general, and I don’t know if that ever really comes through to the rest of the world. So I don’t think there’s been a shift or a change in Palestinian society. The Speed Sisters are just carrying out what women have always been doing here. And that needs to be brought to light.”
Why? Why tell this story in particular?
“Because for me it’s an interesting cross-section. I’m a Canadian of Lebanese origin and there is a bit of a – not necessarily identity crisis – but just sort of a need to deliver a different message. After 9/11 we had a lot of push back in our own community – towards my family, towards the Arab community in general – and it threw me off a little bit because I was born and raised in Canada. It was really the only thing I knew. Then all of a sudden I was being asked all these weird questions, like ‘are you Muslim?’, ‘are you Shia or Sunni?’, and I’m like, ‘Shia or Sunni? Why would I be asked these questions?’ All this ridiculousness that all of a sudden was happening, and me being Muslim, it wasn’t like I’d been asked that question growing up. Now there were all of these identifiers and we were being portrayed in a way that was different to the Arab culture I had grown up around.
“And so I really wanted to try and tell a story that would bridge that sort of divide. In any place in the world there’s more than one story for any single place. There was just this cross-section of really being able to change stereotypes about the Middle East in general, about women in the Middle East, about women in general, about women in sport. There were so many of these things that really had meant a lot to me or that I was familiar with, so it kind of just fell in my lap. It was a blessing. I couldn’t have thought of a better project for me to take on.”
To find out where it all began, you have to turn the clocks back four years to the British consulate in East Jerusalem’s decision to invest $10,000 on helmets, training and the revamping of an old BMW for any woman who wanted to race. At the time there were a number of women racing independently, but there had never been a team that British female racers helped train. Fares herself was hired to shoot a handful of short videos and to take care of social media and was introduced to the team when it was first formed. “I’ve been with them since the beginning. Five women racing cars anywhere in the world is quite an unusual thing, so I saw potential from the very beginning. I didn’t know what the story was per se, but definitely there was something there that was interesting.
“The first year-and-a-half was really just getting to know them. We have five characters, that’s a lot of research, a lot of development that needs to happen. Then trying to raise the funds is not an easy thing to do, especially for a first-time filmmaker. We were filming for about three years and have been editing for almost the last year or so.”
Is it finished?
“Close to. We’re in the editing process, so we’re hoping to have it ready to launch at the festival circuit for next year, which would mean it has to be picture locked by the end of the fall.”
The women and the film are more than just a simple snapshot of racing in the West Bank. They tell individual stories of resilience and aspiration in an occupied land. Zahalka’s father, Khaled, for example, tells a favourite tale, as recounted to Habjouqa. One day, years ago, he discovered his new car had gone missing. It did not take him long to work out that his youngest daughter was also missing, and when both car and 10-year-old returned from her joyride he vowed to nurture her passion, working his way out of Jenin’s refugee camp in the process. That accomplishment was an inspiration for his daughter. “People here often look down on people from inside the camp,” she says. “But they do not make that mistake around me. The camp provided my father and those around him with the inspiration to study and achieve. He is a son of the camp and that strength is inside of me.”
* Photographs – Tanya Habjouqa
* Published in Emirates Man, July 2014