Marah Zahalka was 11 years old when she first got behind the wheel of her family's Volkswagen Golf in the small, conservative city of Jenin, in the West Bank. Her mother, a driving instructor, had gotten sick of listening to her daughter begging to drive and so, carefully, she helped Zahalka adjust the front seat, start the engine and slowly lower her foot onto the gas.
As it turned out, the kid was a natural, and shortly after getting her licence at age 17, she began competing regularly in racing events held throughout the Palestinian territory. Now, almost 20, she's still living with her parents and still driving the same Golf, but with a lofty goal.
“I want to go to Formula One,” she says.
Zahalka isn't alone. Over the past few years, a handful of young women in this landlocked, conflict-plagued region have started racing cars, which is surprising for two reasons: First, it's only possible to race in the small areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, meaning no highways or long stretches of road are available; second, this a sport that, save for the occasional Danica Patrick, is largely dominated by men even in the most progressive countries, let alone in traditional Palestine.
“These girls do not fit in with any of the stereotypes we tend to have towards Muslim women,” says Amber Fares, a filmmaker from Grande Prairie, Alta., who moved to Ramallah and is shooting a documentary about female racers here over the next nine months called Speed Sisters. “The issues they deal with and the lives they lead are much closer to ours than we would expect.”
Zahalka is featured prominently in Speed Sisters, alongside others such as Noor Daoud, a tomboy from Jerusalem who likes to drive muscle cars; Betty Saadeh, who lives in Bethlehem and wears hair extensions and low-cut T-shirts while driving; and Maysoon Jayyusi, a 34-year-old divorcée who works for the United Nations, owns her own fashion boutique and races, according to Fares, mostly as a means of escape.
“When I drive, I feel free,” says Jayyusi. “Like I can run away from all the problems around me. I remember when I was little, I felt like I couldn't move, I couldn't go where I wanted, ... Now, when I put my foot on the gas, I go fast and this makes me happy.”
Zahalka's motivations are similar; she gets a rush from flooring it, tackling hairpin turns and figure-eights at top speeds, and beating her competitors each time — during a race three months ago in Jenin, she came in 11th out of 53 and was the fastest of the female racers.
When she first got into the sport in 2009, however, she was one of the only women on the track and her exhilaration was tempered by a wave of criticism. As Jayyusi explains, “In a traditional Arab family, if a girl came and said she wanted to race, they would say to her, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ ”
“For a long time, my extended family and I weren’t on speaking terms,” says Zahalka. “My aunts and uncles and other people we knew in Jenin didn't like the idea. It's a very conservative town, I guess. ... It was disappointing because no one seemed to understand why I was racing — everyone thought I just wanted to be around the guys, that it had nothing to do with enjoying the sport.”
Zahalka's immediate family was more supportive — her younger brother wants to get into racing, too — and she took comfort in their encouragement. Her father, a dental technician, even started working longer hours so he could save money to buy his daughter a new Mini Cooper.
Eventually, things were patched up with the estranged aunts and uncles, although they’re still hesitant to express any major zeal for their niece’s controversial hobby. That’s fine, according to Zahalka: “I think if someone is against what I'm doing, that's an issue with themselves, not with me.”
Fortunately, the men at the racetrack have been open-minded, accepting the reality that not only will they have to compete alongside the Speed Sisters, they might get beaten by them, too.
“At first,” says Zahalka, “when I won a race against the guys, they were surprised. But they got used to it and support me now — I think, actually, they want us girls to go even further than they do, to get more attention for the sport here. Besides, no one wanted to do a documentary on them.”
Now, the Speed Sisters regularly find themselves hiring men to fix their engines or negotiate sponsorship deals, talking to men at the Palestinian Motor Sport and Motorcycle Federation about race logistics, and signing autographs for some of the 4,000-plus men (and a few women) who come to cheer on their favourite drivers at speed trials.
Training has also become a co-ed activity, with limited space to practice. Zahalka will go with her father to an empty lot in Jenin where a vegetable market is set up during the day and taken down at night; the two of them will try to replicate race courses with pylons. Meanwhile, in Ramallah, Jayyusi and others will train in an abandoned parking lot next to an Israeli prison.
For the most part, politics are left out of the equation when it comes to the auto-racing scene in Palestine, but almost all of the competitors feel frustrated by the lack of available infrastructure in terms of the roads, which comes as a direct result of checkpoints and border police.
“There's an occupation in my land,” says Zahalka, “but when I'm in a race I feel like I'm resisting. ... I feel like I have to let the world know there is a girl called Marah Zahalka that represents Palestine and has the ability to achieve things.”
Translation provided by Christina Ganim.