Race day in Palestine starts early. The sun has barely made it over the distant Jordanian mountains overlooking Jericho when the first racers start doing doughnuts on the scrubland behind the large concreted area that will host the competition.
It lies on the eastern border of the Palestinian territories, overlooked by a fortified Israeli checkpoint that contains a single guard, who is observing the preparations from his tower.
The speed test series is a great source of pride for Palestinians, since there is no Israeli equivalent. “They would love to come and race here,” says a Federation official known as Monty, as he looks up to the blue and white flag visible above the trees. “But the way things are that’s just not going to happen.”
The first spectators have arrived, buying grilled corn-on-the-cobs from vending stalls that must have been set up in the dark, some fans already clambering onto the corrugated roofs of the shelters surrounding the course to bag the best view.
On the spectator side of a start/finish arch draped in Palestinian flags is the makeshift VIP area, where pictures of Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas hang behind rows of white plastic chairs.
Palestinian security police dressed in blue and black camo uniforms stand in groups chatting, waiting like everyone else for the action to begin.
As the crowd gathers, Betty, wearing a red racesuit, walks the course with her brother George, familiarizing herself with the route around the cone slaloms before racing begins, clutching an official course map drawn in blue and orange felt-tip pen.
Noor is crouched next to her black BMW behind the course, with her black-and-yellow racesuit rolled down to the waist, carefully attaching a number 53 sticker as mesmerized kids look on. The interior has been reduced to an industrial- looking shell, its insides stripped out to save weight.
Noor’s mother, who runs a designer clothing boutique in Ramallah where Noor works, gave her the car. It’s the same one she used to strap Noor into as an eight-year-old girl, a time when neither of them could have imagined where it would end up. “Yeah she was a bit shocked when she first saw it,” Noor says in husky tones, “but she just wants me to be happy.”
Noor, a natural-born sportswoman who has competed professionally in boxing, tennis and soccer, began drift racing on the streets of Ramallah in 2008 and was spotted by the head of the Motorsport Federation, Khaled Qadura.
Thanks to the American passport she inherited from her estranged father, she has also recently been selected to drive in the new Formula Two series in Israel after beating more than 7,000 people to one of the 10 places available.
“I’ve loved cars since I was young,” she says, her brown eyes squinting against the sun. “Someone once asked me, ‘What do you prefer? Car racing or sex?’ And I said car racing without hesitation. It’s a beautiful thing. When the car gives me power, I control it, I’m the master. There’s no other adrenalin rush like it.
When I go to Israel it will be a completely different sort of racing, but I’m going to be good. I’m going to show the world what Palestinians are capable of.”
At 9am racing gets under way. The Speed Sisters watch from their own designated area now, complete with 34-year-old team manager and sixth team member Maysoon Jayyusi who has just arrived from her boutique in Ramallah, bringing with her yellow-branded Speed Sisters T-shirts and caps, and a large banner bearing their logo. An almost exclusively male crowd, three bodies deep, lines all sides of the course.
Kids stand on bins to get a better view as men hold their phones outstretched to record the action. loud Arabic pop music blares out of portable speakers as a quiffed announcer introduces each driver in turn, before they force their cars tightly around the obstacles with screeches of protest from the tyres, engulfing a seemingly grateful crowd in thick smoke.
Each driver has two runs before the top 10 fastest go for a third time to decide the winner. Though all cars are in competition, they’re also divided into five power classes, and Betty’s first run is a tidy 1:59s for her GTI.
Noor is not so lucky, taking a wrong turn right at the end of her run classed as a ‘wrong road’. Her car is also overheating. “I’m going to really go for it next time,” she says, standing by her steaming vehicle afterwards. “And if it burns, let it burn!”
The Speed Sisters have inspired another woman to come and race with them today. Sahar Jawabrah, a 44-year-old schoolteacher, saw footage of the Speed Sisters on television and wanted to have a go herself.
She now occasionally turns up to tests, the only woman ever to have raced wearing the hijab. This is her fourth appearance and, as before, she has turned up alone. She completes a slow-but-respectable lap and drives off the course smiling, hiding her face with embarrassment as the crowds cheer through her windows.
“My family don’t like this sort of thing,” she says after her run. “But I love it as it’s a kind of freedom. I saw the Speed Sisters doing it and thought, ‘If them, why not me?’”
Noor starts her second run with a doughnut spin that draws huge cheers from the crowd, a grin visible on her lips through the smoke, but her overheated car has to be wrestled around the course and she won’t be the one woman to progress to the top 10.
That honor is for Betty, who produces an even quicker run to secure her place among the men. She now poses for pictures with male fans in the break before the shoot-out, as the announcer comes in search of reigning women’s champion Marah to ask her to explain why she’s not competing.
Sitting on the floor in front of the safety rail, she shyly takes the mic and explains her car trouble to the 1,500-strong crowd. They give her a consolatory cheer as she smiles with embarrassment, pleased, nonetheless, her absence has been acknowledged.
When the final phase of the day’s racing gets under way it’s almost 6pm and the cheers are at their loudest. Betty increases the volume with a doughnut spin as she pulls up to the start, the Black Eyed Peas’ Boom Boom Pow blaring out from the speakers.
She weaves nimbly between the slalom cones, finishing a neat lap with her best time of the day, a 1:54.57. With the other, more powerful, modified cars of the remaining men also performing well, she doesn’t crack the top five, but she’s won the women’s championship and come top of her otherwise all-male GTI class.
As the crowd swarms the course to congratulate the winners, Betty stands on her car bonnet under the start/finish arch, posing for the cameras and looking down at a sea of mobile phones as her team-mates look on.
The Speed Sisters are at the end of another successful year, helping Palestinian motorsport’s popularity thrive.
“The act of Palestinian women racing for me is so important,” says Marah from the sidelines. “It shows freedom.
People think Palestinian women are held back, but actually here we are racing in a sport that is known as a man’s sport.
Racing lets people know the Palestinian people can never be trapped in a hole. We go out and we race, just like any place in the world.”