The Speed Sisters: Palestine’s first female racing team

The Speed Sisters: Palestine’s first female racing team

On international women’s day an interview with Amber Fares, the director of Speed Sisters

Amber Fares was living in Ramallah when a friend invited her to a street car race at Yasser Arafat’s old helicopter landing pad. It was here, amidst the crowds, the music and the cars revving that she met the Speed Sisters. “There were a couple of girls putting helmets on their heads and getting ready to race,” recalls Fares. “It was so unexpected to me and at the time I was thinking of how to tell stories in Palestine and that just seemed like such an unexpected story and a unique way to tell the story of Palestine from such an unusual angle. So I went up and introduced myself and went from there.” As Fares would later find out, the Speed Sisters are the first all-female race car driving team in Palestine and across the Middle East.

Fares spent the next few years with the five women that make up the team and has since told their stories in Speed Sisters, a documentary which will be screened across London over the next two weeks. The camera follows Marah, Betty, Noor, Mona and Maysoon as they navigate improvised tracks in the West Bank, through vegetable markets and a security academy, but also the stories of their families, their relationships with each other and the military occupation which has placed restrictions on their freedom of movement.

The women often struggle to find a place to practice because the amount of space Palestinians actually have control over and access to is limited, Fares explains. Mostly the team practice in the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin, Jericho, Nablus and Hebron, but these areas are already overcrowded. Then there is the Israeli army. In one scene theSpeed Sisters are on their way to practice in an abandoned car park which they have been using on a regular basis near an Israeli detention centre but when they arrive Israeli soldiers are there. Betty gets out of the car to investigate and one of the soldiers shoots her in the back with a tear gas canister.

On another occasion, Maysoon, the team leader, is driving through Qalandia checkpoint when she has to wind the window up because the smell of tear gas is so overpowering; it’s a smell she says reminds her of her journey to school during the intifada. Fares cannot remember why there was so much tear gas that day, whether there was a particular incident or if it was just another Friday for Palestinians trying to pass through a checkpoint. “The point is that the occupation is always present and it rears up in different forms and it’s unpredictable. Sometimes you can drive through Qalandia and you can get through in ten minutes and another time you drive through it takes you two hours and there’s a traffic jam. Anyone who’s been living there can attest to that, you’re driving one day on a Wednesday afternoon and all of a sudden there’s tear gas flying over your head, it’s not something that you can necessarily predict.”

In the face of these obstacles, racing gives the Speed Sisters an escape from the restrictions of the occupation: “Being behind the wheel of a car that you can control is a great sense of freedom. Then on top of that being able to drive fast, to be able to race and the adrenalin, it’s a huge release for them,” says Fares.

Whilst the team wins trophies and is famous within its communities, there is no cash prize. Its members are motivated instead by the competition, the joy and the passion of racing: “They’re not doing it for the money, which kind of makes it more honourable to tell you the truth. It’s just out of pure passion, all of those people coming out to race,” explains Fares. This is particularly impressive when you consider how expensive car racing is as a sport.

“Women in racing is something that’s new around the world and there are more women across the board that are becoming interested in racing cars… it’s a very expensive sport, there are a lot of barriers for entry even before you get into the fact that it’s in Palestine,” says Fares. “You have to have access to a car, you need to have money, it’s not like they make money while they’re doing this. In general race car driving is done by very specific, affluent people, that is generally who races cars around the world. So I think they have a lot of girls that come up and say: ‘I’d love to be doing this, I’d love to be driving, I’d love to race.’”

The team have encouraged women not just to race but to fulfil whatever their passion is in life: “They do inspire women to participate, to follow their dreams, to do whatever it is they want to do. It gives them inspiration; I’ve heard that a lot from women… I think they just really inspire people that despite where you come from, the situation that you’re in and the obstacles that are in your way, it’s worth it to really fight to follow your dreams.”

One of the great strengths of this documentary is that the audience can empathise and connect with these women wherever we are in the world and whatever our passions are, for many of its themes are universal: “I think the film shows strong, Arab, Muslim women that are living their lives on their own terms. I think the great thing about the film is that all of us, regardless of whether we live in the Middle East or not see ourselves in those women. We empathise with them, we sympathise with them, we understand what they’re going through and I think that’s a really wonderful thing because it shows more of the similarities that we all have as opposed to the differences. I think that Palestinians loved the film because of that; that it shows you strong women and it gives a different perspective of Palestine beyond the headlines of the occupation and the constant military threat that they face. It shows life there and I think that's an important thing for men and women, I think for everyone to realise that there’s more than one story that represents any one place and that beyond these headlines there are people that are like you and that have dreams and are funny and have full lives. I think that’s an important thing for all of us to remember. I think it’s important that we have strong women characters from the Middle East but also around the world.”

“I think it strikes a really great balance between touching on issues that are important to Palestinians and in Palestine but as well telling a really entertaining story of these women that are living in this unusual place and are racing,” Fares adds later. The audience learn that Betty enjoys having her nails painted and is from a wealthy family of established racers whilst 19-year-old Marah lives with her family in the Jenin refugee camp where they have been since the 1948 Nakba. Mona and Maysoon contend with the possibility of marriage whilst Noor makes the decision to leave Palestine in pursuit of a different type of racing. Speed Sisters is a documentary which tells the story of the occupation and the obstacles that come with it but at the same time it is filled with personal stories, hope, arguments, reconciliation and perhaps most importantly, laughter.

“For me it reflects the relationships I had while I was there,” says Fares, “the laughter and the joking, because it’s such an absurd situation that humour is used to combat that so much. You would do all of these really fun things and you would still have the occupation there. You do have fun there even though it’s a terrible, unfair, unjust situation and I think for me it was really important to show the life that was there as well that is beyond just this victimhood and being victims to this situation, that there is a lot of inspiration for me living there and I wanted that to come out and it came out in those characters because they’re so inspiring.”

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor