The quiet of a Saturday night in Bethlehem, Palestine, is broken at 10 to midnight by the screech of wheels on tarmac. Betty Saadeh is speeding past the ancient Church of the Nativity in her red Golf GTI, perfectly manicured nails tipped with silver glitter gripping the wheel, a pair of 6-inch heels at the pedals.
She’s wearing a figure-hugging black dress and has spent the afternoon in the salon having extensions added to her blonde hair: tonight she’s celebrating. The 32-year-old Christian mother of two became – officially – the fastest woman on the West Bank when she won the women’s championship in Palestine’s speed test series, driving the same Golf she’s now parking up in the city center. It, too, has undergone a transformation.
This morning it was still a shell, metal innards exposed as the interior was stripped of all but its bucket racing seat. But Betty’s mechanic, Maher, restored it to normality this afternoon and now the only signs of yesterday’s action are the remains of the racing stickers that covered the exterior.
One on the passenger window displays, in large orange letters, the name of Palestine’s first and only female race team: the Speed Sisters.
Betty is with teammate Noor Daoud, a striking, sports-obsessed 22-year-old who drives a blacked-out BMW, and as the pair enter a nightclub in the basement of the grand Jacir Palace Hotel, they turn heads.
“Did you see the article in the paper today?” Betty shouts over her shoulder to Noor, her words almost lost to the US hip-hop blaring from the speakers. “It said, ‘Betty: Queen of cars!’ My mechanic told me the guys were all watching my laps asking, ‘Did she beat us? Did she beat us?’”
“You beat so many guys!” Noor shouts back with a grin as she signals to the barman. The women are two members of a six-strong team changing the face of motorsports in traditionally conservative Palestine.
They compete on an equal level with men at races held around the West Bank, in front of thousands, shredding stereotypes in their tire tracks. With both Christian and Muslim members and an age range of 20 to 35, the Speed Sisters are a group of women united by a hunger to race.
In the land-locked Palestinian territories where space is at a premium and there’s an absence of long stretches of checkpoint-free road, racers have to find suitable areas where they can – a disused helipad in Bethlehem, a closed marketplace in Jenin – to compete in speed tests on obstacle courses.
But as Noor and Betty take to the dancefloor, drinks in jewelry-clad hands, there’s no hint of the world of oil, sweat and blisters they occupied only yesterday.
At dusk on Thursday in the ancient eastern town of Jericho, the roar of engines and metallic stench of gasoline filter down towards the town center from a hilltop parking lot that’s become a temporary home for Palestine’s community of racers.
It’s the evening before the final race of the season, and all the 55 cars taking part need to be checked and registered. Groups of men stand chatting and smoking, grunting appreciatively at an array of makes and models, since any is eligible to compete, enjoying the opportunity to exchange stories and check out the competition.
The Jericho Cable Car next door links the town to biblical site The Mount of Temptation, and drivers of tour buses use their horns to negotiate an exit with the line of race cars still trying to get in. Bemused bus-trippers look on, powerless.
Betty and Noor enter the melee, dressed in jeans and trainers, their hair tied back, giving two kisses of welcome to some of the male racers as they make their way to the makeshift registration office accompanied by Betty’s family.
She comes from good racing stock. Her brother George is the speed test champion of 2009 and will also be competing tomorrow. Their father Jalil is a former rally champion in his native Mexico. It put Betty in the unusual position of being persuaded by her parents to race.
“I used to say, ‘But Mom, it’s all boys!’” she laughs. “But when I tried it, I discovered this adrenalin inside me like my father and brother. Back then, there were just three girls racing and at first even some of the guys I’m greeting now used to laugh at us. Then when we started beating them they got mad, but now it’s better as they are used to us. Most tell me, ‘Mahbrook!’ Congratulations!”
But not all Speed Sisters have found it so easy. Marah Zahalka, 20, a business student from the conservative town of Jenin, is one of the youngest members, the reigning women’s champion and a motorhead who started driving aged 10, when she’d stack pillows on the driving seat of her mother’s Volkswagen Golf and disappear off into the neighborhood.
These days she still races her mother’s car, but this time with her permission. Marah’s parents, her mother, a driving instructor, and her father, a dental technician, have supported their daughter throughout her short racing career, with her father even working longer hours to help pay for it. But her conservative relatives weren’t so easily convinced.
“When my aunts and uncles found out I was racing, they thought I was just showing off for a group of guys,” she says, leaning against the parking lot wall.
“They were so upset they stopped talking to me and my family.” Marah continued to race regardless, proving to be one of the top women drivers in the country, not only beating the other women, but finishing in the top 10 overall.
Now she’s proven herself, they’re starting to come around. “Now they see it as a sport they have started to change their minds,” she says, “but it’s hard.”
Changing these sorts of attitudes is one of the reasons the Speed Sisters team officially came into being in 2010, when an employee of the British Consulate General in Jerusalem heard about the small number of women racing and decided to help.
The Consulate brought out British race driving trainers and donated helmets, race suits, an old BMW for practice, and came up with the all-important name to give the girls a stronger identity, which would also, they hoped, attract more sponsors.
Motorsport is expensive the world over and Palestine is no exception. Just one set of tires costs well over $1,200, and finding funding here is no mean feat. All the Speed Sisters rely on help from their families in addition to every spare shekel from their wages to keep them in competition.
For Marah and fellow Speed Sister Mona Ennab, 25, a self-professed tomboy who stands next to her wearing an oversized sweater, the cost of fixing their damaged cars has proven too high to race tomorrow.
They have still traveled from their West Bank hometowns to Jericho to cheer on the team from the sidelines and celebrate the end of the season, but Marah’s hopes of defending her title have been dashed.
Despite their disappointment, evidence of the positive effect the team is having is close by. On the other side of the parking lot, a smartly dressed girl is clutching a clipboard to her chest and trotting to keep up with a team of middle- aged officials in dirty overalls who are doing the rounds of inspection.
Hadeel Jaradat is a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student and the Speed Sisters’ latest recruit – despite the fact she can’t drive. Her chess-expert father has finally given in and is giving her lessons.
“My father says in chess always imagine your opponent is the smartest person in the world,” Hadeel laughed earlier,”and on the road always assume the other drivers are the most stupid!”
For now Hadeel is learning on the job, eagerly helping the Motorsport Federation mechanics assess the race cars.
She is one of only three girls in a class of 300 studying mechanical engineering at the university in Ramallah despite her parents begging her to choose a more ‘suitable’ career for a woman, her mother lamenting that the underside of a car is no place for a lady.
But Hadeel remained steadfast and couldn’t believe her good fortune when she discovered the Speed Sisters.
“That helped my parents to see that mechanical engineering can have a future in Palestine for a woman,” she says. “I can be here learning and checking the cars before the races.”
Seeing these women race also gave me a big boost in self-esteem. I want to be racing with them by March.” When Hadeel finishes registering the last cars, night has set in and thoughts turn to the race tomorrow.
As a line forms to leave, the mass exodus of souped-up racers can be heard for miles as they burn their way back to town.