Palestine's female racers: 'When I drive, I understand freedom'

The six teammates of Palestine's Speed Sisters won over doubters and their male competitors, and hope for a future in Formula One.

Betty Saa'deh, left, and Noor Daoud are both highly committed to motorsports.
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With the Gulf of Aqaba shimmering behind her, 21-year-old Noor Daoud showed what she was made of as she flew into first place for women in Israel's first legal car race, a two-day event in Eilat last weekend that featured Formula Renault cars in a traditional grand prix-style format. Daoud was overcome with emotion as the solo Palestinian female racer competing with Israelis. The win brings her one step closer to her dreams of racing internationally.

Born in Texas and with a wild mane of hair, 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 Daoud 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 for Palestine's Speed Sisters - the first all-female racing team in the Middle East.

In many ways, the six women represent the diversity of what Palestine has become - fragmented West Bank cities divided by checkpoints, settlements and lifestyle differences depending upon identification and socio-economic class. Yet they are tied together by an intense love of racing, their Palestinian identity and their willingness to compete in a male-dominated sport.

"Some people may judge Noor for racing with Israelis - if I were in her place, I would do the same," says her fellow Speed Sister Mona Ali Ennab. "She has a Jerusalem ID which allows her to do so, and she has made us proud."

Ennab, a 25-year-old Ramallah native, is in some ways the most rebellious of the group, raised by a Palestinian widow whose conservative dress belies an extremely open mind. "During the second intifada my mother would usher in her front door youth on the run from Israeli soldiers," she says. While studying translation at Birzeit University, Ennab was shot in the leg on her way back from campus and was flown to Dubai for treatment. A striking figure with exquisite cheekbones, Ennab can be found at protests amid flying stones, gas canisters and Israeli soldiers.

Ennab was one of the first women spotted by Khaled Oaddoura, the founder and chairman of the Palestinian Motorsport & Motor-cycle Federation. She started driving at a children's karting corner in Amman's Mecca Mall.

"It was a slow process," she says. "The men made fun of us at the beginning, but over a two-year period we won their respect and now our fellow male racers are our biggest supporters.

"When I drive, I understand freedom. As speed racers we get a taste of normality. We are used to being stopped at checkpoints, but on days we have races, we fly through checkpoints. One day, a woman from Palestine will win an international Formula race. I want to show those who occupy us that we will always find a way, our pride is our strength."

Ennab is woefully aware, however, of the limited professional options to take her dream forward. "Here, we have the desire and the talent, but there is a lack of infrastructure and sponsorship money to really raise our standards to compete internationally."

One determined Speed Sister is bringing her acute business sense to the equation to make that happen. Maysoon Jayyusi, a 34-year-old from a closely knit conservative family, is determined not only to bring international sponsorship to the Speed Sisters but also to raise funds to build Palestine's first professional race track. Recently appointed the manager of the team, she straddles her time between a full-time administration job at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and her fashion boutique, Angelina.

"I find Western obsession with the fact that some of us are Muslim and racing annoying," Jayyusi says. "My family is religious and they accept that I race." Recently returning from her first Umrah trip in Saudi Arabia, Jayyusi recalls conversations with young Saudi women. "A few explained that they would practise driving in the desert," she says. "They found the Speed Sisters really inspiring."

Also a youth of the second intifada, Jayyusi credits her grassroots resistance (visiting families of prisoners, and teaching children when schools were closed) with fuelling her driving. "I started to drive fast when I felt depressed," she says. "When I drive fast I leave my depression behind and see a future."

Despite economic, geographic and political limitations, Palestinian racing drivers do what their countrymen are most renowned for: improvising. A favourite training ground lies in the shadow of Ofer prison, one of the largest Israeli prisons in the occupied West Bank, built to accommodate the mass arrests of the second intifada. Here and in abandoned lots, the Palestinian team practise in souped-up Golfs, BMWs and Fiats - taking corners at speeds that send up smoke from the tyres, performing "doughnut" spins and handbrake turns. These crowdpleasing moves yield thousands of fans at rallies in Jericho, Nablus, Jenin, Ramallah and Bethlehem - in some cases under the conspicuous watch towers of Israeli soldiers. While the crowds are generally male, the rallies increasingly entice families and young female fans enamoured of the Speed Sisters. Jayyusi says she has received 224 Facebook requests in the last few months alone. The rising fame of Speed Sisters has not always been positive though. "There was one man who asked me to marry him," she says, "but he asked me to stop racing. I could have loved him if he had accepted me as I am - but it seems he could not accept a strong woman."

One Speed Sister gaining a regional following and revelling in the spotlight is Betty Saa'deh, the 2011 Palestinian women's champion, who won four of the five races in Palestine - two in Jericho, one in Ramallah and one in Bethlehem - along with four races in Jordan. While local businessmen will occasionally come up with cash for first-place winners (sometimes US$1,000 [Dh 3,673]), in general, there is no prize money. Saa'deh made do with a shiny, gold cup for her 2011 title.

Born in Baja California, Mexico, and later from Bethlehem, Saa'deh works full time at the Mexican consulate in Ramallah. A strikingly beautiful blonde, she often applies lipstick before taking her Golf GTI on the track. It would be easy not to take her seriously at first glance, but her ferocity on the track is a reminder that femininity and fearlessness can go hand in hand.

"When I race, I feel I am beating the occupation," Saa'deh says. "I want to show the world that Palestinian women are more than their media image. We have an opportunity here to show the world something different."

The Speed Sisters have no role models in the Arab world for car racing, and tend to look for homegrown heroes. In the absence of these, they are determined to provide that role for young girls. However, Saa'deh may be the exception as her father was a rally champion in Mexico in 1982 and her brother is a fellow racer in the Palestinian federation.

In direct contrast to Saa'deh's overt confidence lies the smouldering quiet strength of 19-year-old Marah Zahalka. The two are considered the best female drivers in Palestine - Zahalka was the women's winner in 2009 and 2010 - and could not be further apart in temperament or background. If there were a rivalry among the Sisters, it would come out between these two.

A student of accounting at the Arab American University of Jenin, Zahalka started racing at the age of 10. At her family home in Jenin, her father remembers how shocked he was when his new car had gone missing. It did not take him long to work out that his youngest daughter was also MIA, and when both car and 10-year-old returned from her joy ride, he vowed to nurture her passion.

Witnessing the death of a young boy by ordnance in the aftermath of the Israeli siege of Jenin camp in 2002, Zahalka says the event marked her forever, and removed her fear. The grin she wears when racing is perhaps the only time you see past her quiet demeanour.

"There is nothing I want more in this life than to race professionally and prevail in Formula One," she says. "But I will only do this under the name of Palestine."

Zahalka says that despite a recent opportunity to train and receive a professional car in Jordan, she turned down the offer when it became clear she would race under the name of the Jordanian team. Proud that her father is from the Jenin refugee camp, she credits him as an inspiration.

"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."

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