Dateline meets the first all-women car racing team in the Middle East, as they swerve through the cities of the West Bank and break down cultural barriers.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, August 29, 2017 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

Marah Zahalka has car racing in her blood.

“I noticed her talent the day she stole the car when she was 11 years old,” her father Khaled says. “It was clear that she is unique.”

For Marah, the realisation that engines, steering wheels and gear sticks would be a big part of her life came even earlier.

“I’ve always liked cars,” she tells director Amber Fares, in this week’s Dateline. “I’ve always liked watching them. I’ve always loved the sound of cars.”

But as a Palestinian living in the West Bank city of Jenin, her path to racing glory has involved one barrier after the other. For decades the city has been a centre of violent confrontations between Israeli and Palestinian nationalist groups. During and after the Second Intifada – a Palestinian uprising against Israel in the early 2000s – Jenin became known as the ‘suicide bomber capital’, due to their disturbing frequency.

“Jenin has been through really hard times,” Marah says. “For a period we lived under a 24-hour curfew.”

“The army only allowed us two hours to shop for bread and water. It was really tough. But what are we supposed to do? Stop living? No. Life must go on.”

Internationally, car racing is a male-dominated sport – and in Palestine it’s been exclusively male for decades. But Marah is part of a team of young, ambitious drivers that are trying to subvert the sport’s norms. Marah and her four teammates make up the first all-women racing team in Palestine. They call themselves ‘The Speed Sisters’.

While the women are supportive of each other, there is fierce internal competition – particularly between Marah and another racer, Betty Saadeh. The two of them are regularly the first and second-placed drivers in the women’s standings of the annual Palestinian championship races.

During her career Betty has signed sponsorship deals with Peugeot and attracted significant media attention. “Betty’s name has become linked to racing in Palestine,” says the team’s manager, Maysoon Jayyusi. “Marah won many times, but she has never been in the spotlight like Betty.”

Betty isn’t shy when speculating why she thinks she’s received adoration from the media.

“The media is always after me because I know how to talk to them, and I’m beautiful and attractive,” she says. “I’m good publicity for the Federation.”

“Betty Saadeh – I’m a brand.”

Despite their popularity and local fame, the drivers aren’t immune from everyday dangers.

The volatility of life in the West Bank affects the Speed Sisters’ professional lives – they regularly struggle to find places to train, due to road closures and heavily militarised checkpoints.

In one instance, an Israeli soldier fired at Betty with what appeared to be a tear gas canister, as she approached a group of them to ask if she could train on a nearby road.

The team is aware that what they’re doing comes with inherent dangers.

As one of the Sisters, Noor Daoud tells Betty, “[If you think] because you’re blonde, or because you’re dark, or because you’re pretty, they’re not gonna shoot you? They shot you in the arse!”

For some of the drivers, they’re facing cultural barriers not only in their city, but also within their home. Marah’s grandfather is from an older generation and while he is proud of her, he’s also skeptical of her career path.

“All of my children were in the top of their class,” he says. “To have a girl racing in Amman and here and there is so unusual.”

“She is the first to do something like this. We wish she’d study to become a doctor and work in a respectable field.”

But her parents recognise the significance of their daughter’s achievements, and the effect it’s had on their lives. They’ve sacrificed a lot – the cost of Marah’s new car came at the expense of building a new house. But it’s been worth it.

“Our life has changed thanks to racing,” says Marah’s mother Aarab. “Her dad, me and her siblings.”

“We’ve entered a new world and it has made us really happy.”

Watch the full story at the top of the page.

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Credits

Reporter / Director: Amber Fares

Producer: Amber Fares, Jessica Devaney, Avi Goldstein

Camera: Amber Fares, Talal Jabari, Andrew Lang

Editor: Rabab Haj Yahya

Transcript

NOOR DAOUD, RACE DRIVER: It’s not working. Oh, that’s great… That’s a really good start.

MARAH ZAHALKA, RACE DRIVER (Translation): My goal is the make the world know that Marah Zahalka represents Palestine.

BETTY SAADEH, RACE DRIVER (Translation):   It’s like we put the pepper for the food. Like the race without the girls – it’s no fun.

Meet the first all-female racing team in the Middle East, a group of women who train together and compete against each other. They’re gearing up for the first race of the Palestinian Motorsports season.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): I’ve always liked cars.  I’ve always liked watching them. I’ve always loved the sound of cars. I’ve always loved the sound of cars.

AARAB ZAHALKA, MARAH”S MOTHER (Translation):  I started working as a driving instructor when Marah was 10 years old.  She always wanted to ride in the car with me, and watch how I drive.

KHALED ZAHALKA, MARAH”S DAD (Translation):  I noticed her talent since the day she stole the car when she was 11 years old.  It was clear that she is unique.

There is pink paint, but yellow will look nicer.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): No, not pink!

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  Or there is green.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):   How about this colour?

AARAB ZAHALKA (Translation):  Our life has changed thanks to the racing, her dad, me and her siblings. We’ve entered a new world and it has made us really happy.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):  My parents give me everything they have. So at every race I feel that I need to get a better score just to make them happy. It really pleases them.

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  The refugee camp starts here and goes all the way to the end. My whole family lives in this neighbourhood.  Let’s go inside.

Marah’s one of the fastest racers in the Speed Sisters team but here in Jenin her family has overcome many obstacles to keep her in the competition.

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  Dad!

MARAH’S GRANDFATHER (Translation): Hello!  Hi, how are you?  You little devil! 

All of my children were in the top of their class. To have a girl racing in Amman and here and there is so unusual … She is the first to do something like this. We wish she’d study to become a doctor and work in a respectable field.

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  She’s doing well in her studies!

MARAH’S GRANDFATHER (Translation): We want her to have a clinic and many patients to treat.

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  But now she is in London, she is “the “champion of Palestine.”

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):  Jenin has been through really hard times. For a period we lived under a 24-hour curfew. The army only allowed us two hours to shop for bread and water. It was really tough. But what are we supposed to do? Stop living?  No. Life must go on.

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  Hi. What’s up?

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): How are you?

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  See, I covered up. Everyone said.  “Cover up when you’re in Jenin.”

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): You don’t have to worry about that. Just be yourself. “Everyone said cover up when you’re in Jenin!” She means we are backwards.

It’s race day - the girls must do a return lap around the obstacle course. The fastest time wins, but points are lost for lack of precision.  The drivers to watch are Marah and Betty.

WASIM:  Go, go!
KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  Go get her!

When the race ends and they announce Marah as the winner, as happy as we are, what matters most to Marah is that the people of Jenin and the refugee camp our proud.

CROWD (Translation): Let’s go Jenin, let’s go!

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  And the prize for fastest woman driver goes to the champion, Marah Zahalka!

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  I was born in Mexico. Spanish is my first language. So I feel Palestinian and Latina at the same time.

Even if I’m tough and I’m in this sport for men, I’m a girl, I’m feminine, so it’s very important for me to show that I’m not a tomboy..

I’m very competitive. My mum wanted me to be special in everything… beauty, manners, school, education and racing – to always be the best.

The rivalry between Marah and Betty is heating up. Marah’s just won the race in Jenin. Now Betty’s determined to win the championship in her hometown.

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  This is the most important race for me because the competition between me and Marah is very fierce now. One of us will win the championship.

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  All racers come to the starting line. We have important information and if you don’t listen, I don’t care. It’s your problem.

Betty’s won the race but Marah’s calling for Betty to be disqualified.

AARAB ZAHALKA (Translation):  See? It’s very clear. How did she win? Khaled said “I noticed, but it doesn’t pose a risk to her or the crowd.”  They told Marah that if her boot jiggles even a bit then she is out.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI, TEAM CAPTAIN (Translation):  According to Federation rules, the boot shouldn’t be open for safety reasons. In the Bethlehem race, Betty’s boot opened and no one noticed. She won. Later there was a photo showing that her boot was open.

AARAB ZAHALKA (Translation):  We have no problem with Betty or Mona or whoever winning. But not like this.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):  I’m being treated unfairly. I won’t race in Jericho.

Marah’s pulling out of the next race in protest.

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  Please clear the track because this is a decisive round. On the starting line: Betty Saadeh. Congratulations to the fastest female driver, Betty Saadeh!

BETTY SAADEH:  I got the Peugeot sponsorship for five years. The Minister of Transportation gave it to me and here’s my boss, the Ambassador of Mexico. Here is the General Manager of Peugeot, Maysoon my manager of Speed Sisters, Khaled Qaddoura, and Montaser.

Because I think a lot of people call me, uh, we want to sponsor you because men they want to talk to me and have any relationships with me and I’m really careful with that. And, you know how when they see a girl, you know, she’s open-minded, she’s cute, she’s beautiful, any guys want to talk to me.

TONY:  Hi, I’m Tony. Good to meet you.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): Betty’s name has become linked to racing in Palestine. Marah won many times… But she has never been in the spotlight like Betty.

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  The media is always after me because I know how to talk to them, and I’m beautiful and attractive. I’m good publicity for the Federation. “Betty Saadeh” – I’m a brand. No. No. Not like that. What? It’s for Facebook!

Speed Sisters Team leader Maysoon is taking Betty to do a training session for a photo shoot, but road closures and checkpoints make it hard to find space for fast driving.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): Every time journalists come, we have to show them how we train. It’s good for us because it gives them an idea of our team.  Soldiers?

MALE (Translation):   No, there aren’t.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): Yes, they’re over there! Oh no! They have tear gas! Go back, Betty!

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  What’s up?  What was that? A rock?

MALE: Puncture?  I got it, I got it.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation):  No, no hold on I got it. Soldiers are coming. Get up.

NOOR DAOUD: Hide the camera. Hide the camera.

MALE:  Hold on, Betty!

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): I told you “Don’t go!” They are bastards. Are you ok? Let me drive. Oh sweetie, your back!  Is the emergency room on the left?   It’s not a joke. Training there is really dangerous.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI:  You’re fine?

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  You know, I’m not doing that well.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation):  Why? Are you still afraid?

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  Yes! I can’t sleep. Do you think it’s easy?

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): Is it still bruised? I told you, “Betty get back! Come back, Betty!”

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  I never imagined such a thing could happen!

NOOR DAOUD: Because you’re blonde, sorry, or because you’re dark, or because you’re pretty they’re not gonna shoot you? They shot you in the arse.

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  Life under occupation is unstable You never know what will happen, I work nearly 18-20 hours a day.

AARAB ZAHALKA (Translation): In the last 12 days he only came home for one night.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): It’s like he works abroad.

AARAB ZAHALKA (Translation):  And I work, too. I leave the house early in the morning. The plan was to build a new house or buy a new car. Khaled decided to buy Marah a new car, so we put off the house for another year.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): I want to go back. Forget about the last time…

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  I think…On March 9th, you have the race in Jericho.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): How do you know?

KHALED ZAHALKA (Translation):  I just do.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): Really?

Marah’s back in the driver’s seat for Season two, ready to take on her old rival.

MALE (Translation):  Put it in first, then second. Then floor it.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):   Please hit a cone.

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  I won!

BETTY SAADEH (Translation):  Racing is in my blood. I grew up in a family of racers.

Today Betty and Marah are fighting it out for this year’s championship title.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): What is it?  No, come this way.

MECHANIC (Translation): There is a problem with the engine so we advised her to withdraw from the second round.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): You won’t need a second round. Your first round was good enough.

NOOR DAOUD (Translation): Congratulations, it’s done.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):  We won.

BETTY’S MOTHER (Translation):  You should have gone into the turn in first gear, not in second.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): I feel so much better now.

BETTY’S BROTHER (Translation):  Marah withdrew so they are cancelling her first round.

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  Betty Saadeh, please come to the starting line.

KHALED (Translation):  You withdrew and I need a girl in the final round. So we took the next fastest time.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation):  She still won’t beat your time

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): I’ve never heard of this rule!

KHALED (Translation): You forfeited your second round so we are disqualifying you.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation): If I’d known, I would have raced!

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation): You should have said:  “If you withdraw Betty will go to the final round.”

KHALED (Translation): I can’t tell her that!  I’m not on anyone’s side.

MAYSOON JAYYUSI (Translation):  You explained the rule to Betty!

KHALED (Translation): I didn’t explain it to her or anyone else.

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  Please clear the track. Betty Sadeh, please come to the starting line.

MARAH ZAHALKA (Translation):  I’m an idiot for coming back!   I’m an idiot! I’m such an idiot! They are so biased!

ANNOUNCER (Translation):  Betty finished her round in 01:30:27. That means that the women’s champion is: Marah Zahalka!

MALE (Translation):  You’re the champion! It’s over! 

CROWD (Translation):  Congratulations Marah!!

   

reporter

amber fares

 

story producer

amber fares

jessica devaney

avi goldstein

 

camera

amber fares

lucy martens

 

story editor

rabab haj yahya

 

editors

micah mcgown

simon phegan

david potts

 

titles music

vicki hansen

29th August 2017