Meeting the Female Street Racers of Palestine
Noor Dawood's car being prepared for a race.
I'm driving around the streets of Ramallah, Palestine with Noor Dawood, the celebrated Palestinian street racer and the only female drifter in the Middle East. Noor is one of four members of the "Speed Sisters", the first and only female racing team in the Middle East, who have brought international attention to the burgeoning Palestine street racing scene, pissing of Muslim clerics and dismantling the caricature of Palestinian womanhood as they go.
From the driver seat of her GTI, Noor speaks about the challenges the women faced at the beginning. "At first, [the other drivers] were sceptical,” the Texan-born 23-year-old tells me as we drift around a turn. "They weren't used to seeing a woman driving crazily behind the wheel, racing against – and beating – men. But then they were like, 'These women can drive.'"
They definitely can, and it's making me reconsider my choice of venue for the interview. Noor’s aggressive driving on the tight, steep and manic streets of occupied Palestine is whittling away at my composure, every terrifying curve turning my scripted questions into pre-pubescent squeaks.
A bird's eye view of the course. In the background, you can see a monument erected in memory of the Palestinian lives lost during the Second Intifada. Behind that, the Israeli settlement of Beit El is visible.
Her driving shouldn't have caught me completely off guard, though; Ramallah has a geography that breeds racers, evolving out of the lawless and severe landscape of the occupied territories. “Yeah, learning to drive here was definitely part of it," Noor tells me. "These streets are how I got my start, where I first learned how to race and how to drift."
I met Noor – along with two of the other sisters, Mona Ennab and Betty Saadeh – at a speed test in Ramallah, one of five individual time trial events that make up the Palestinian racing championship. The three Speed Sisters were by far the most popular racers, a constant flow of journalists and fans making their way over to get a picture with the ladies.
The event itself had the qualities of many "official" Palestinian events – partly a serious, organised affair, partly a backyard barbecue, with journalists and team leaders casually crossing the makeshift barrier to the island in the middle of the track as cars sped past just feet away from the unprotected observers. By the end of the day, one police officer was hospitalised after a driver lost control.
A drifting car sporting a window decal of a smiling Yasser Arafat.
Near the starting line, the Speed Sisters – along with the 40-odd Palestinian and Jordanian drivers – mulled around their suped-up Fiats, Datsuns and Peugeots. They all looked like ordinary vehicles, bar the gutted interiors, tacked on spoilers, window decals of Yasser Arafat and one car with the words "white girls" inexplicably scrawled across its side. One by one, drivers raced through the closed off Ramallah street, weaving through cones and drifting around corners, their mufflers retrofitted to sound like gunshots.
After the race, most of the drivers will replace the seats, dashboards and interiors; their vehicles leading a double life. Mona, who leaves her racecar as it is for her day-to-day, said, "They call this the sport of kings. It's extremely expensive and, for most Palestinians, it's an impossibility."
Betty Saadeh sitting in her living room in Ramallah, Palestine.
In spite of the cost, Palestinian racing has steadily increased in popularity, and clearly much of this has to do with the Speed Sisters, whose position as the only female racing team in the Middle East has brought international media attention to Palestinian racing.
When Betty Saadeh's name is announced over the loudspeaker, the large and almost exclusively male crowd flanking the closed off road in Ramallah goes crazy. The 32-year-old Mexican-born Palestinian flies down the 200 metres of street, 360 drifts around a set of cones and races back to the start.
A Palestinian admirer named Samer points at Betty. "Look at her," he says. "I hear she drives in heels – total badass."
And you can see where the rumours come from; with her blonde hair, pink lip gloss, fake nails and full racing suit, Betty looks like she just stepped out of a Kenny Powers' wildest fantasy. However, back at her impossibly white apartment, amid the hundreds of trophies she's picked up during her racing career, she rubbishes Samer's claims.
"No, I don’t wear heals when I race," she says, laughing. "That would be ridiculous."
Betty in the driver's seat.
The unrivalled popularity of the sisters is clearly what's breeding all these folk stories – the kind of ridiculous hearsay you'd normally find written about Ellie Goulding and Anne Hathaway in the centre pages of Heat.
But it wasn’t always like this. Betty’s now iconic image prompted many racers and fans to write her off in the early years.
As Noor explained, "Yeah, people didn’t take Betty seriously. The hair, the makeup, everything. But that would be their mistake – she could beat most of these guys, and has."
Noor has faced her own unique challenges, being the only female drift racer in the Middle East. She explains: "In my first drift race in Jordan in 2010, I got top ten with 30 guys. Some of them were shocked, got angry and took my trophy. There – and in Palestine – that attitude is normal. Us women get a lot of comments, like, 'Why don’t you stay at home? Get a life,' and whatever. Blah, blah, blah."
While attitudes may have changed slightly towards the Speed Sisters, tired stereotypes of what women should and shouldn't be doing in Palestine haven't completely faded.
The almost exclusively male crowd stands on the makeshift barrier that borders the street-cum-racecourse. While the popularity of the Speed Sisters is obvious, female fans are conspicuously absent from the event.
One Palestinian at the race told me, "I like Betty and Noor, but I wouldn’t want my sister, daughter or wife to be a racer. It would be unacceptable."
Some Muslim clerics have gone even further, saying that female racing is haram (forbidden), echoing the kind of recent rhetoric from a Saudi Sheikh who claimed that allowing women to drive cars can "harm their ovaries".
As Betty told me, “It's true, we are in a very reserved society. But when a normal guy goes out, they don’t cheer for them like they do for us."
The Speed Sisters see themselves as ambassadors for Palestine. "We give a different image of Palestinian women," says Betty. "They think Palestine is Saudi Arabia, that women stay at home and don’t drive. But we don’t just drive, we race!"
Gender politics are only part of the story. The Israeli closure of the West Bank since the second Palestinian Intifada has made travelling, acquiring car parts and racing competitively extremely difficult. Most racers have West Bank IDs and can only race in Palestine and Jordan, as Israel controls all the borders and visas.
Some racers modify their cars for the pageantry. This one spewed flames out of its exhausts and others had their mufflers modified so they'd backfire constantly, mimicking the sound of machine gun fire.
"Many of the drivers cannot even leave the West Bank," says Noor. "It sucks!"
"You feel like you're in prison here, with all these walls," Betty said, referring to the 500 km-long wall separating the West Bank from Israel. "Even though I have a Mexican passport, I still have a Palestinian ID," she continued. "It restricts me from moving freely. I wish I could drive to Jerusalem, to the beach in Tel Aviv – just normal stuff."
But normal doesn’t seem to be on the cards for the Speed Sisters. One time, they were practicing in a parking lot next to the Israeli Ofer Prison in the West Bank when Israeli soldiers opened fire. "We were just training in a parking lot," says Betty, "and Israelis shot me in the back with a tear gas canister."
But these kinds of stories are common enough in Palestine, and perhaps the driving is one way for the Speed Sisters to temporarily escape that narrative. As Betty told me, "These pressures from society – from the occupation – it's because of all this that we drive. You need to have no fear in this sport, and in Palestine, racing makes you feel free."
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