Driving with the Female Street Racers of Palestine
Oct 3 2013
Noor Dawood's car being prepared for a race.
All photos by Daniel Tepper and Vittoria Mentasti
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 off Muslim clerics and dismantling the caricature of Palestinian womanhood as they go.
From the driver's seat of her GTI, Noor speaks about the challenges the women faced at the beginning. "At first, [the other drivers] were skeptical,” the Texas-born 23-year-old tells me as we drift around a turn. "They weren't used to seeing a woman driving crazy behind the wheel—racing against and beating men. But then they were like, 'These women can drive.'"
They definitely can, and I quickly 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 sends my scripted questions into prepubescent 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.
I shouldn't have been surprised. Ramallah has a geography that breeds racers, who evolve 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. All is equal out here."
I had met Noor—along with two of the other sisters, Mona Ennab and Betty Saadeh—at a speed test in Ramallah, one of the 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 requested pictures with the ladies.
The event itself had the qualities of many "official" Palestinian events—part serious and organized affair, part backyard barbecue, with journalists and team leaders who casually crossed the track as cars sped past just feet away from the unprotected audience. By the end of the day, one police officer was hospitalized after a driver lost control.
A drifting car sporting a window decal of a smiling Yasser Arafat.
At the starting line, the Speed Sisters—along with 40 or so Palestinian and Jordanian drivers—mulled around their suped-up Fiats, Datsuns, and Peugeots. The seemingly ordinary vehicles had momentarily transformed with gutted interiors, tacked on spoilers, window decals of Yasser Arafat, and one car with "white girls" inexplicably scrawled across the 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 a gunshots.
After the race, most of the drivers will go back to work replacing 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.
Despite 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 Middle East has brought international media attention to Palestinian racing.
When Betty Saadeh's name is announced over the loudspeaker, the large and all-male crowd flanking the closed road in Ramallah went crazy. The 32-year-old, Mexican-born Palestinian flies down the 200 meters on the closed-off street, 360 drifts around a set of cones, and races back to the start.
Samer, one of Betty's Palestinian admirers, pointed and said. "Look at her," he said. "I hear she drives in heels—total badass."
I could see where the rumors come from. With her blond hair, pink lip-gloss, fake nails, and a full racing suit, Betty looked like she had just stepped out of a Marie Claire spread. However, back at her all-white apartment, amid hundreds of trophies, she trashed Samer's claims.
"No, I don’t wear heals when I race," she said, 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 hearsay you'd normally find written about pop stars and Hollywood actors inside gossip magazines.
But it wasn’t always like this. Betty’s now iconic image initially positioned her as a joke with many racers and fans.
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 toward 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 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 view themselves as ambassadors for Palestine. "We give a different image of Palestinian women," said 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 traveling, 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," said Noor. "It sucks!"
"You feel like you're in prison here, with all these walls," Betty said, referring to the 300-mile-long wall separating the West Bank from Israel. "Even if I have a Mexican passport, I still have a Palestinian ID," said Betty. "It restricts me from moving freely. I wish I could drive to Jerusalem, to the beach in Tel Aviv—just normal stuff."
Normal doesn’t seem to be on the cards for the Speed Sisters. One time, while they were practicing in a parking lot next to the Israeli Ofer Prison in the West Bank, Israeli soldiers opened fire. "We were just training in a parking lot," Betty told me, "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 escape that narrative temporarily. As Betty told me, "These pressures from society—from the occupation—it's because all of 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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