Racing in Ramallah

The Speed Sisters, a group of female race car drivers from the West Bank,have formed what may be the Middle East's first all-women racing team.

Julia Niemann
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Julia Niemann

"Be careful, you're a female driver," says the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint. His warning smacks of irony, considering the fact that the car is headed to Ramallah to meet Noor Daoud, one of the most successful female racers in the Palestinian territories.

Daoud, a 22-year-old Palestinian, is fresh off a first-place win in the women's category at Israel's first organized Formula 3 competition, a two-day event held in Eilat in mid-December. Daoud is the first Palestinian, male or female, to participate in and win an Israeli race. She acknowledges that her gender adds a twist to an already unusual story, but according to Daoud her real satisfaction lies in the fact that she outperformed four Israelis.

SPEED DEMON: Daoud in her car in Ramallah. She says she got caught going 200 kph on Route 6.Credit: Michal Fattal

In her mother's upscale boutique in the Ramallah hills, the two women proudly show off a Palestinian newspaper with several pages of photographs depicting Daoud.

"They are proud of me," she laughs. "Everybody here is. The people are very supportive."

Sharing a need for speed

Daoud is not alone in her endeavor. A group of women who call themselves "The Speed Sisters" constitutes what may be the first female racing team in the Middle East. A film about the group is reportedly in the works.

Daoud was the only member of the group to compete last month; the others who applied failed to qualify, she said. Some were prohibited from applying, explained Daoud, because unlike her they do not have an Israeli ID. Others opposed the idea of racing in Israel and dropped off the team, which receives financial support from the British Council in Jerusalem.

Khaled Qadura, chairman of the Palestinian Motorsport and Motorcycle Federation, says that of the original six Speed Sisters - Daoud, Betty Sa'adeh, Maysoon Jayyusi, Marah Zahalka, Mona Ennab and Suna Aweida - only the first three remain. They are now joined by another racer named Sahar.

"But there are three new girls to come," adds Qadura, noting that the recruits hail from Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The most prominent member of the group is Sa'adeh, the 2011 Palestinian women's champion. Sa'adeh, a Ramallah resident and close friend of Daoud's, is 10 years Daoud's senior. She has won four of the five races in the Palestinian Authority - two in Jericho, one in Ramallah and one in Bethlehem - and another four races in Jordan. Born in Mexico, Sa'adeh works full-time at the Mexican consulate in Ramallah.

"Being blonde and always wearing perfect make-up, people sometimes don't take her seriously at first glance, but that's a huge mistake," Daoud said.

For Daoud, who is training this week in England along with Sa'adeh and Maysoon, the act of racing in Israel feels like a normal, challenging task. Yet she notes that others might see her as a traitor. Two of her former Speed Sisters hassled her on Facebook after they learned she was participating in the Eilat race, she said.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the occupation," Daoud says of the criticism she receives. "I think they are just jealous." Daoud was born in the United States and was raised along with her brother by a single mother. She has since been around the world - from boarding school in Switzerland to sports programs in Miami. She has excelled in other sports, as well. She was on the Olympic swimming team and on the Palestinian national soccer team. She also played for Israel once.

The story of the Speed Sisters is about more than just a group of Palestinian women who love to race. It also demonstrates the current state of Palestine - a divided land with people living across a range of lifestyles, depending upon their identity and socioeconomic class, within fragmented West Bank cities.

'I will win'

From the terrace of her upscale home, Daoud can see the Tel Aviv skyline. On especially clear days, she says she can even see the beach.

Three stories below, in the garage, is her 1998 BMW, which she stripped of everything but the driver's seat, the stick shift and the steering wheel.

It has back-wheel drive, she says; her friend Betty's car has front-wheel drive. "That's why she is faster," she explains.

After winning in Eilat, Daoud said she wants a new car for racing internationally.

"And when I say I want a new car, I will have a new car," she says confidently. "And, like in Eilat, I decide to race and win. And I will."

Daoud revels in sliding - speeding up, hitting the brakes and causing the car to spin.

She says male drivers were skeptical when she first started racing.

"They watched me driving and drifting and were like, 'Wow,' but when I took my helmet off and shook my hair, they kind of freaked out at first," she recalls. "But by now they like me and always ask when I am not at a race, 'Where is the one in the black BMW?'"

Daoud doesn't stick to a regular practice schedule, she says.

"I just drive and improvise," she explains. She drives at so-called speed tests in Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem. Films of her practice drives have been uploaded to YouTube.

"Over there, next to the prison and the checkpoint we also sometimes drive," she says, referring to Ofer prison - one of the largest Israeli prisons in the West Bank. At the speed test rallies, Daoud drifts, spins and turns in her BMW, showing off to thousands of fans.

Qadura says the situation for Palestinian race car drivers may change soon for the better. He asserts that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is willing to allocate 3,000 square meters of space in Jericho to the Motorsport Federation for building a racing ground. Now they have to find sponsors in other Arab countries and Europe to finance the project.

The lifestyle of a female driver can be lonely, Daoud laments.

"I don't have many friends - a few Israelis and Betty," she says. "You know, here you cannot just be with the people you like." Other girls her age living in a traditional Muslim society think about marriage, she says. "This couldn't be more far away from my life. I do not believe in marriage at all," she says.

That disconnect explains why she often drives to Tel Aviv to socialize.

"With my speed, it only takes 30 minutes," she says.

But those days are over, she admits, ever since she got busted speeding on Highway 6. She had the music turned up, she said, when she suddenly noticed five police cars chasing her, unable to catch up. She was going over 200 kph, she says. The policemen - who told her they had never caught anyone driving so fast in Israel before - did not send her to jail but did take away her driver's license, she says.

Daoud drives through Ramallah as she recounts the incident. "This is different. This is Ramallah," she says. "They know I am a race driver, so they leave me alone."



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