Cars represent far more than transportation for the Speed Sisters.
It’s 7 a.m. in Jenin and the last of the oversized wooden crates have just been cleared out of the open-air vegetable market. A group of volunteers in bright orange vests set cones where chalk marks have been scratched on the asphalt. The Palestinian Motor Sports and Motorcycle Federation’s banner flutters alongside those of local corporate sponsors. Food vendors begin their rounds as a crowd gathers around the track.
Despite restrictions on mobility and movement, organizers erect makeshift racetracks in major cities across the occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank. Beyond the vegetable stalls of Jenin, cars can be seen racing on Arafat’s former helicopter pad in Bethlehem, on a tarmac in the 10,000 year old city of Jericho, in a main street nestled in the valley of Nablus, in the lot outside a transit point and prison at the edges of Ramallah. The motor races provide a release from the pressures of everyday life and the spirited competition between cities brings spectators out in the thousands, lining rooftops and leaning over barricades to photograph the best shots of the day and to see final times on the digital scoreboard.
The first car peels off the line and screeches around the cones, nearly drowned out by the cheers of hundreds of fans energized by the day of motor racing ahead. They are young men, mostly, boys, and a few families with kids. The more nimble have climbed atop the buildings and shipping crates to get a better view. And then, the crowd is suddenly quiet, their eyes tracking the black hatchback entering the track.
“Nummber two! Marrrrrrrah, from Jenin!” The crowd erupts. “Huh? A girl?” one guy asks. Marah, the 20-year-old racing prodigy, drives up to the start line. Jenin is home, and this is her turf. It was here that she first beat out most men to place in the top ten. Eyes closed, she whispers a passage of self-encouragement from the Koran. Her fingers chart the course in the air that she is tracing in her mind, that she has been doodling in the pages of her course books for days, that she has been seeing in her sleep. It loops and weaves. It seems to never end.
But she knows it now. She’ll find her way.
Marah is not alone. Brought together by a common desire to live life on their own terms, several determined Palestinian women have taken on the street car speed test circuit of the West Bank—competing against each other for the title of fastest woman, for bragging rights for their home city, and to prove that women can compete head on with men in Palestine and beyond. Together they have been acclaimed as the first all-women motor racing team in the Middle East—the “Speed Sisters.”
Each of these women has her own story and each is part of something more newsworthy than news: the daily reality and personal dreams that live on behind stock images and breaking news headlines from Palestine and the Middle East.
The lives of the Speed Sisters are more complicated than the winding slalom course of their improvised time trial tracks. For them, motor racing is a small challenge compared to navigating the complicated maps of daily life in a nascent state struggling with conflict and occupation, with development and politics, and with the tension, common around the world, between social expectations and personal choice for young women—in family, career, and love.
The Speed Sisters are doing something very simple and yet very brave. They are resisting a reality that diminishes their dreams, that tells them their future is small, predictable. In pursuing their passions and the drive to move freely in the face of the shrinking horizons under a military occupation, they are planting hope in the eyes of those who watch them race. This gives them confidence to continue to pursue their own personal aspirations, even when doing so requires pushing social boundaries.
Cars, then, represent far more than a means of transportation for the Speed Sisters. Taking the wheel represents an insistence on the right to mobility, a taste of hope and independence, and the stubborn belief that a larger and wider future is possible in their lives as women and as Palestinians.
Want to learn more about the Speed Sisters and their lives? A documentary film I've directed/produced on them is currently in production. Please join us at speedsisters.tv, Facebook.com/speedsistersthefilm, and twitter.com/speedsisterfilm.
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