When born and bred in Britain, America or anywhere west of the Middle East, placing your imagination into the seemingly alien world of Palestine can be tricky, to say the least. Trouble, despair, death... A nation begrudgingly remaining on the edges of decades of conflict, Palestinian life is casually fatal. Except, it's not to simple.
Unlike how the region is usually depicted in the media mainstream, there are freedoms of sorts in Palestine. Life there is by no means as independent as chilling in England, but hobbies, pals and passions do exist. Take the very first all-female racing team in the Middle East, for example, a fierce group of women who are fighting the occupation with fast cars. They'll show you passion isn't just for the free.
Acrylic nails, kick-ass jumpsuits, customised cars and unbreakable friendships make up the girl power racers, who ride against established male teams in tournaments parallel with no-go segments of the West Bank. Determined not to allow the torment of growing up in the midst of a war to interrupt their young adult lives, the incredible women always get back in the car, whatever it takes.
You've got Marah Zahalka, 23, a young tearaway from Jenin determined to make racing her life since becoming a champion at 19; Maysoon Jayyusi, 38, from Jerusalem, the team's manager struggling to choose marriage or racing; also from Jerusalem, 25-year-old Noor Dauod barely loses a race; Ramallah's Mona Ali, 29, one of Palestine's first female racers; and Betty Saadeh, a 35-year-old champ from a wealthy racer family based in Bethlehem.
Taken aback by the fearless ladies' lives, filmmaker Amber Fares decided to tell their stories. While living in Ramallah, Palestine, the Lebanese/Canadian director couldn't resist capturing the lives of these bold women tearing up the war-torn tracks.
Her boundary-bashing feature-length documentary Speed Sisters has screened to full houses at festivals around the globe since its release last year. A powerful insight into smashing stereotypes as the women try to break the male-dominated field, this is obviously no surprise. Ahead of its DVD release next week (May 9), we catch up with Fares to talk about the modern heroines that make up the girl power team, how relatable the women are for everyone and just how complex the racing world of Palestine really is.
Konbini: What drew you to make Speed Sisters?
Amber Fares: I was living in Ramallah and a friend invited me to a race. I remember thinking it was really unusual and I was curious as to where there could be a race, given the [military] checkpoints and lack of mobility. We went to Bethlehem and there was this amazing scene. In the middle of that there were these girls putting helmets on and I just thought wow!
Palestine is a place where the narrative is dominated by what’s seen on the news. I wanted to tell the story that was behind the headlines.
Did you relate to the girls in the team?
The brilliant thing about the film and them is that everyone relates to them. They’re very universal and their quests are universal. That’s the beauty in the story. I’m sure most women that watch the film do [relate].
Why were they inspiring to you?
Each one just wanted to break out and do something different that she could be known for. All of that inspired me and the fact they were trying to do something that is unusual for women to do all around the world, not just in Palestine. A woman in motor sports is not a common thing – it’s a very difficult thing globally.
From the documentary I get the feel the public (as well as the women’s parents) really support the girls – are they really held up as hero figures in Palestine?
They definitely were incredibly supported. One of the surprises were the male racers who were incredibly supportive and helpful. It was a really lovely community. They don’t make money for what they’re doing, it’s all a passion. It’s a freedom they don’t have in other areas of their life.
Like everywhere in the world, there are going to be people who support them and those willing to judge them, and think that it’s not right. But that happens anywhere. In Palestine though, because of the occupation and the lack of control in their lives, that when people show a passion or a hobby, you do find community support.
"Racing in Palestine is a political act; it's like we’re gonna do this no matter what"
Have they inspired a new wave of Palestinian girls to take up racing?
I think so. The film is incredibly popular in Palestine, they really love it. Maysoon is moving back to Palestine soon and I think one of the things she really wants to do is have a car available at the races that any girls can drive and encourage other women.
Do you think them being in the team is a political act in itself, as well as a passionate one?
For Palestinians, the fact you can live your life in the way you want to is basically saying that I’m not going anywhere and I’m going to continue to live regardless of my circumstances. So racing [in Palestine] is a political act; it's like we’re gonna do this no matter what.
One guy in the film thinks it’s cool that the girls race, but team leader Maysoon said men in Palestine are afraid of strong women. Did you sense they actually get treated differently to the male racers?
Yeah, a little. But again in this situation it’s so across the board all over. I mean [female] racers in the UK talk about how hard it was to breakthrough and how they weren’t given the same respect male racers would get right away. They really had to fight for their place on the track. But in the racing federation, they had a female board member. I think the idea of dumbing yourself down isn’t uncommon in other places as well.
It’s true there are definite gender issues that happen in the Middle East that really need to be addressed. But instead of shining a light on Palestine or the Arab world specifically, we also need to take a look at how we’re falling down in those areas too. It should be part of a larger conversation we’re all having, opposed to just singling out one particular area.
This is a really great example of that, because you do have this issue of sexism and women in sports across the board in every country around the world, that women athletes are treated differently and not as well as their male counterparts.
"There probably is a bit of backlash with the way men perceive them"
There’s a scene in the movie where Mona tells Maysoon “if you had to pick racing or a man you’d pick the man”, was it obvious that they’re making a lot of sacrifices by racing?
They don’t make sacrifices in that respect. The sacrifices [they make] are more monetary. This is a place where the economy is fragile at best, and while most of the girls came from wealthier families, it’s still very difficult.
There probably is a little bit of backlash with the way men perceive them, like we love that you’re a racing car driver but we’d probably never date you… I’m sure there’s that going on.
Have the women’s stories affected your personal life in any way?
It’s a very inspiring story and they’re all very near and dear to my heart so it was an amazing experience in terms of being around them. There was a lot of support from the Palestinian community so we were really able to … For me, how it changed me, other than being included in the racing community, they allowed me to see a side of this place that isn’t often seen.
"When freedom is in question, it's not something we easily tolerate. But we shouldn’t expect Palestinians to be tolerating that either"
What was it like being in the West Bank, a notably dangerous place?
I grew up in Canada but my dad’s parents came from Lebanon, so we grew up with a strong Arab influence. But after 9/11 there was such a huge shift in the world… I looked around at how Arabs and Muslims were being portrayed in the media and it was so different to the family that I grew up in. There was a disconnect and [I felt] a need to tell stories from the Arab world.
The occupation at first is really scary. Coming from a place like Canada, where you have law, order and freedom, you have to throw that out the window. It’s a weird change in psyche.
You never get over the anger you feel but it sort of becomes normal. While you’re there that’s just how things are so you work around it. And that’s what Palestinians do – you can’t go here, you just go another way. You don’t give up. It is a testament to the resilience of Palestinians who have been living like that for years.
When freedom is in question, it's not something we easily tolerate. But we shouldn’t expect Palestinians to be tolerating that either.
When Betty got shot at with tear gas – how did you feel mentally in that situation?
Oh my god that was incredibly scary. It wasn’t something we were expecting at all. At the time it was really chaotic. We weren’t really sure what happened to her. We just got in the car and get them to the hospital.
"So much of the news we get from the Middle East is so dire and depressing that stories of hope and inspiration are much needed"
It wasn’t until after we got home and reflected we really realised how insane it was. The soldier just lifted his rifle and shot a tear gas canister. If he would’ve shot in the air at us, we would’ve gone flying. It could’ve hit Betty in the head and been much worse.
Why do you think people are still talking about the movie, a year after it premiered?
Well it’s a very universal story. It has a lot of access points. Racing, gender, Palestine/Israel issues… it’s a very entertaining film. So much of the news we get from the Middle East is so dire and depressing that stories of hope and inspiration are much needed.