Motor sport, Palestinian style

NABLUS, West Bank — For a change, the Palestinians gathered on the main street of Nablus were happy to be going around in circles.

Palestinian politics makes a lot of noise, only to end up spinning its wheels, moving no closer to statehood or peace. But the same combination on the race track is attracting growing attention for the Palestinian Motor Sport circuit.

“I love racing and I love speed,” said Suna Aweideh, the 39-year-old driver from Jerusalem who has become known as “Queen of the Car Races.” “It’s exciting for our people.”

The racing association has been holding its meets for a year. Last week’s event in Nablus was the second of the new season. The stretch of the city’s main street closed off for the race was packed with youths in jeans and T-shirts, chanting the names of the racers.

In the baking mid-morning sun, the races got underway. A female announcer called in English, “Three-two-one-Go!” Lebanese trance music began to pump at a volume almost as painful as the screeching of the car tires, as the first competitor burned rubber. His plates were, for the duration of the race, changed to “Palestine 1.”

The races are actually time trials. The drivers slalom through traffic cones and, braking and revving all at once, circle other cones in sliding “donuts.”

The course is only about 500 yards long, running between two of the city’s biggest mosques, and is completed in about 90 seconds. The 49 drivers get two shots at it.

Though the organizers assert that the 400 policemen on duty at the race — armed with Kalashnikovs — and the presence of Red Crescent ambulances and fire trucks make for a safe environment, it’s almost as nerve-wracking to be a spectator as it must be to drive the course.

The cars spin at high speed only a couple of yards from the crowd, which is pressed in behind flimsy crowd-control barriers on the sidewalk. The race was held on a stretch of road beside a gas station, where the large number of cigarettes being discarded on the oily ground was less worrying than the possibility of a souped up BMW ploughing into the pumps.

“You have this in America?” yelled Adly Sharaya, a 42-year-old from the city’s Balata Refugee Camp who was standing on the hood of his car in the gas station. “Only in Palestine!”

It was a remarkably good-natured gathering in a city more renowned for rioting. Last year’s winner (or “Champion Hero” as the motor association calls him) was George Saadeh, a racer from Bethlehem. He had changed his tires before the race and needed to wear down the rubber.

So, as the crowd wandered among the parked cars of other races, Saadeh’s portly father swung his Peugeot around in dramatic donuts, making pedestrians jump out of the way, until he had a mild collision with another vehicle. George took the driver’s seat and raced away.

Behind him, the crowd milled about the pit lane, which was without the supermodels who follow the Formula One circuit but did have a cafe serving cardamom-flavored coffee and pungent sheeshah pipes. Men only in the cafe.

Seasoned observers of the Palestinian road may wonder why it took so long for them to begin official racing, given the velocity and lack of concern for danger with which young men in particular conduct themselves behind the wheel on public roads.

Economics plays a role. The contestants have to put up 300 shekels ($80) and provide their own cars. A few have sponsors, but most race in borrowed vehicles or the same car they drive to work.

During last year’s competition Israeli checkpoints restricted the ability of some drivers to move around the West Bank. These days most are able to get about and they practice their spins on empty roads near the Jordan Valley town of Jericho, one of the quieter places in the West Bank.

The four women racers have attracted considerable attention and they’re striking figures in their red or black racing suits. The British Council, the international cultural branch of the U.K. government, sponsors them, though the Jerusalem driver Aweideh had to borrow a car from a Ramallah rental company.

“Everyone expects boys to drive fast,” she said, putting on lipstick for the race. “Why not girls too?”

Aweideh received one of the biggest cheers of the day, the young men on a long balcony overlooking the track chanting her name, as she spun around the cones in her Opel Corsa.

But it was a man from the small town of Tulkarem who won the round in his blue Peugeot. Another Palestinian from that town, Waleed Sayyed, enthused about the race.

“This scene is wild,” he said. “I mean, there are women racers. It shows things are changing here.”