Behind the wheel of her car, with her long red nails snaking around the steering wheel and a racing helmet obscuring a perfect sheath of blonde hair, Betty Saadeh is just another Palestinian race car driver. But that doesn’t mean she’s willing to sacrifice her glamour.
“I'm in this sport that’s for men,” Betty explains while a manicurist arranges rhinestones in a heart shape on her fingernails. “It's very important for me to show I'm not a tomboy.” Betty and four other female Palestinian racers are the subject of a new documentary following the dust left by a group of lightning-fast drivers who must navigate the sometimes invisible obstacles of a male sport in a homeland under occupation.
Filmmaker Amber Fares had been working in development in Palestine for a few years when she was invited to watch a race at former President Yasser Arafat’s helicopter landing pad in Bethlehem. In the middle of a thousand screaming fans, she spotted Betty, along with two other female racers, getting her pre-race tune ups. “What the hell, there are women here?” she remembers thinking. It was 2009, and by the next year, Speed Sisters—the Middle East’s first all-female racing team—officially formed.
For four years, Amber and her film crew followed the women through the world of high-speed racing. It was akin, she says, to trailing a group of rockstars. “In the street, people would come up and say, ‘You’re the racers!’”
Those training sessions, races, donuts, skid outs, and trophies are chronicled in a new documentary, Speed Sisters, which made its North American premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto last week. After the screening, the teammates were approached by a Canadian female driver. “In Canada, we are only two racers,” she said, according to Marah, one of the racers touring with the film. “It’s amazing to see you have five. How do you recruit more girls?”
The day after showing the documentary in Canada, two of the racers, 24-year-old Noor Daoud and 23-year-old Marah Zahalqa, juggled what sounded like a vicious racing battle on a Fast and Furious phone app and a conversation with The Daily Beast.
Their chosen hobby has an unlikely setting. In the ad-hoc race tracks of the Palestinian territories, hundreds of spectators stack into bleachers and squeeze against the sidelines to cheer on drivers, including all five women, as they skid through an obstacle course lined with orange cones. Kids on the sidelines film with their phones and wave green and red flags. After the race, they rush to take pictures with their favorite victors.
There’s Noor Daoud, a big-haired, outspoken sportswoman who is not only an award-winning drift racer, but also a boxer, weightlifter, and Olympic swimmer. In 2012, she became the first Palestinian to race in an Israeli race—much less win. (She did that, too.) Betty Saadeh, a local celebrity who’s at ease both in front of the cameras and the starting line. Marah Zahalqa, a serious competitor focused on victory. Mona Ennab, the track pioneer who started racing back in 2005. And there’s team leader Maysoon Jayyusi, who’s an expert mediator when intra-team troubles arise.
In a sport where rounds are won by seconds, there's no attempt to hide the deeply competitive spirit that emerges. Marah and Betty have a particularly intense rivalry, which lends a nice realism to a movie that doesn’t overdose on the feel-good love of sisterhood. “I hope she hits a cone,” Marah mutters as Betty navigates the course in the film.
On the racetrack, the women put up a unified front, occasionally getting into yelling matches with the commissioner of the Palestinian Racing Federation to ensure they’re treated fairly. "The problem is that men are afraid of strong women. They are afraid they will take over,” Mayhoon says in the film. But for the most part, the male racers are in awe of their competition. “You ask any of them and they’re like, ‘These girls are good—they’re no joke,’” Amber says about the men’s team.
The heroics of these trailblazing ladies on the track almost pale in comparison to the endearing figure cut by Marah’s father, who is so invested in his daughter’s untraditional hobby that he forgoes building his dream house to buy her a new car— a BMW, no less.
At the races, he’s on the sidelines jumping and hugging the other team members while Marah slips through the orange cones. “Two-forty-one horse!” he yells as she zooms by.
Marah’s entrance onto the track in 2008 didn’t come without its hurdles. Racing isn’t a sport one can just pick up in an area as disadvantaged as the West Bank, where the economic hurdles are prohibitive for most. “You have to have family with enough money to have a car, and enough money to have a car that they will let you blow the clutch on,” Amber says.
Money aside, the girls have been careful not to offend their communities. Marah’s hometown, Jenin, is very conservative. Gaining acceptance without isolating her tight knit community was a tightrope.
“I wanted to prove to them this is a hobby, this is what I’m passionate about. I’m gonna make it big time and I’m gonna bring awards to my town,” she told The Daily Beast. “So when I started competing and gaining championships people started to accept idea.”
And now they cheer for her, Noor chimes in.
The film focuses very little on any discrimination the girls faced entering the field, but any familial tension comes out in a half-funny, half-awkward visit to Marah’s grandfather, who professes: “We wish she'd study to become a doctor and work in a respectable field." Her father just laughs.
What the women battle most fiercely are the restrictions of living in an occupied territory. They’ve found freedom behind the wheel, but locating a good place to practice is a different story.
In one scene, they’re driving to their makeshift practice track when they’re stopped by Israeli soldiers. When they get out of the car and approach the troops, they’re fired upon. Betty gets hit in the back with what appears to be a rubber bullet, which leaves a nasty black welt. When she whines, Noor scolds her.
“You think because you’re blonde and pretty they're not going to shoot you?” she asks. “They shot you in the ass.”
In the year since the film finished shooting, the team has fractured. Maysoon married and moved to Jordan, where she’s trying to start another version of the team, Mona is spending time in the United States, and Betty is in the market for a new car. But Marah continues to speed around Jenin with a local sponsorship and a job at the Kia dealer showroom. And Noor has a new gig drift racing in Dubai and competing across the world. She’s started mentoring a group of teenage girls in the art of drifting.
The film screens next in Palestine, where the sight of women speeding around a racetrack is now a common sight. But the young racers are eager for more than this spotlight.
“After the Speed Sisters film I want another one,” says Noor. “I hope we’ll have [our own] Fast and Furious 7 now.”
As the Speed Sisters bask, racers-to-be may be hatching plans to rebuild the team. Marah says she hears from her young female fans at the track, on Facebook and in the streets of her neighborhood. “To them we took the road that looks beyond the limitation of the political situation and the social limits,” Marah says. “So now we feel like they can believe their dreams are possible.”