Mona takes a long drag on her cigarette. She’s the first to arrive tonight, and nervously taps the steering wheel of her silver Opal Astra, watching, waiting. The low, menacing rumble of cars reaches us long before we see them. They’re on their way.
We’re at a dusty piece of tarmac the size of a football pitch on the outskirts of Ramallah. Although everyone here still dreams of Jerusalem as the capital of any future Palestinian state, the city, for now at least, has become accepted as the West Bank’s commercial, political and cultural centre.
And the city that surrounds us today is a far cry from the images of Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have plagued television screens for the past two decades and more. On the streets where Israeli troops and Palestinian snipers were once a frequent sight – where bullets fell and people cowered in doorways – there are now new glass offices, restaurants, gyms and double-fronted villas springing up.
But you don’t have to go far beyond urban boundaries to witness the physical restrictions that still encircle this occupied land.
The vacant strip of tarmac where we stand with Mona marks the end of the West Bank. The plot is bordered on one side by a barbed-wire fence, a spiky boundary that separates the Palestinian Territory from Israel. An Israeli watchtower looms nearby where, occasionally, a green-clad soldier becomes visible, peering curiously at the scene unfolding just metres away.
Suddenly, a troop of cars appears on the horizon. They screech to a halt and as the dust gathers up and then settles, eighteen hard-faced, muscular Palestinian men, each behind the steering wheel of a modified BMW, Mercedes or Volkswagen, peer out of a line-up of dirty front windows. Engines revving, they take no notice of the Israeli military vehicles patrolling on the other side of the fence and instead concentrate on the obstacle course that lies ahead.
This evening, twenty-four-year-old Mona Ennab and a handful of other young women are joining their male counterparts to take part in an ad hoc street-racing event.
Mona is fidgeting; she’s excited, and leaves her car to leap around the men’s vehicles. She hangs through their windows, shaking hands, talking and laughing. This is the moment of the week she lives for, that they all live for. It’s as much a social occasion as anything else – a rare escape from a confined reality. It offers a release. The other women racers perch on their bonnets, sunglasses pushing back their hair, waiting for their turn as the men lead the way.
One by one each racer is timed as they speed around a pre-set course – pulling handbrake turns, performing doughnut spins and weaving in and out of orange cones. The emphasis is on agility and control, but, hitting speeds of up to 50 mph, part of the rush is about going fast, too.
It’s not only mentally tough, but also physically demanding. Buckled into Mona’s passenger seat, our heads are repeatedly thrown against the window as we spin in seemingly endless circles. Although she wears gloves when she drives, her hands are covered in blisters.
“I love people watching me, I like proving what I can do,” Mona shouts over her shoulder, clearly feeding off the speed, or the reverence of the gathered crowd – or, perhaps, a little bit of both.
Together, these men and women are something of a team – Team Ramallah, to be precise – and once a month during the summer season they compete with other amateur street racers from towns across the West Bank: Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jericho.
They operate under the guidance of the Palestinian Motorsport Federation, who organise and fund monthly racing tournaments that can involve as many as fifty competitors at a time. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has also shown his support for the sport. He even allowed one race to be held on his private helipad in Bethlehem.
Finding places where the drivers are permitted to race has proved a major challenge for Khaled Qaddoura, the man who heads the Motorsport Federation. “Everyone knows we have many problems here in Palestine – and we have to get permission to race anywhere,” he explains. “We’re hoping to get a piece of land near Jericho where we can build a track, we are just waiting for the plans to get approved.” But with land ownership still very much at the forefront of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he’s doubtful it will happen any time soon.
Khaled founded the Federation in 2005, shortly after the end of the second intifada – the Palestinian uprising that saw escalated violence and a subsequent tightening of restrictions imposed by Israel. He began to promote street racing almost straight away, knowing it would draw the attention of young people and hoping it could become a way for them to start regaining a feeling of freedom. “There was little to do here during those years,” Khaled says. It worked, and even now, the fact that street racing is banned in Israel makes its prominence here seem all the more symbolic – it shows a resistance. As one racer says: “Having fun like this is one way to show we are still alive.”
Back at the ramshackle race-track, the weekly practice session is coming to a close. As the sun dips behind outer-Ramallah’s whitewashed apartment blocks, the racers slowly edge away. But for Mona and a few of the men left behind, the night has only just begun. It’s Thursday and, beyond the minarets echoing the final call to prayer, the underbelly of Ramallah is coming to life.
We follow the group to SnowBar – an open-air club that sits nestled in one of Ramallah’s many hills. A sound-clash of Arabic and US hip hop booms from the speakers, and the queue at the bar is four deep.
Mona has cast off her racing attire and, sporting a denim jumpsuit, is sipping a double vodka and lemonade. Her eyes are heavily lined with matching blue makeup. Having lived in Ramallah all her life, Mona is well known among this crowd. She flits between tables, and although she thinks of herself as one of the guys, there is something flirty and fun in the way she engages people. It seems infectious – people gravitate towards her – and she feeds off the attention that comes with being a recognised face. “I love this city,” she says over another round of drinks. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, I have everything here.”
In reality, Mona’s Palestinian ID leaves her little choice. To cross into Israel is an administrative headache, neighbouring Jordan is not much easier, and she can count the number of times she has attempted it on one hand.
At the age of nineteen, she became the first female street racer in the West Bank after being spotted speeding through the city’s narrow roads by the Motorsport Federation’s Khaled Qaddoura.
But it wasn’t easy to persuade the other guys she was serious. “The men, they would laugh at me, they said I couldn’t do it and that I should be at home like all the other girls,” she recalls.
And during races, even when she was doing well and taking the right lines on the obstacle course, the men would distract her by shouting that she was on the “wrong road” – an instant disqualification in the sport. But it didn’t put her off. “I am the fastest woman in Palestine,” she says, explaining how she’d simply lock the doors, turn up her Arabic house music and immerse herself in the need for speed.
At 1am the party starts to wind down. People pile into their cars and head towards the centre of Ramallah, to another bar that will take over until 4am. But before we leave, Mona pulls us aside towards a dimly lit outdoor swimming pool, designed to draw in the daytime crowds.
She heads down the steps, takes off her denim jumpsuit to reveal shorts and a strappy top, and dives into the pool. Her shrieks and splashes fill the night air. A cool breeze has picked up, whipping through the valley – and ten minutes later she is back out the water.
“In life, you just have to have fun,” she says, grabbing her clothes and leaving us trailing as she rushes off to catch up with the boys.
Ramallah’s street racers and night-time revellers aren’t just a symbol of an emerging sub-culture of Palestinian youth – they represent an increasingly affluent class who have money, disposable money, and after years of conflict they are now more than ready to spend it. The racers all have jobs or financial back-up from wealthy family – powerful cars, slick tyres and constant vehicle maintenance come at a substantial cost.
But Ramallah’s booming economy and improved security isn’t a story that is shared across the whole of the West Bank. In fact there’s been an underlying resentment from those outside Ramallah who complain the territory’s financial growth has been far from evenly spread and has centred almost entirely on this one city.
Despite all the talk of Ramallah’s thriving success, many are quick to point out the fragile and limited scope of the prosperity, and the potentially turbulent times ahead.
Mona and her friends talk little about what the future may bring. They live firmly in the moment, perhaps only too aware of how quickly things could change.
The following day, we meet Mona and her boyfriend, Mahmoud in downtown Ramallah. He’s a bodybuilder, and his sleeveless shirt exaggerates his bulky physique. Other street racers we met the night before join us, and we head off in a convoy of BMWs towards the Dead Sea – a spot the crew head to every Friday afternoon – about an hour’s drive away.
Barely a few miles outside Ramallah, Mona and the men roll down their windows as we pass through the first Israeli checkpoint. “We’re not allowed to have tinted glass,” Mona explains.
Like most major Palestinian cities, Ramallah is under complete Palestinian civil and security authority. Hidden inside Ramallah’s cocoon, it’s possible to momentarily forget that Israel still retains full control over sixty per cent of the West Bank, including the majority of the roads.
Today the soldiers let them pass through without stopping. Soon, we’re racing across the open desert at 100 mph, slowing down when we see Israeli police. The car’s thermometer gauge edges upwards, and by the time we’ve reached our destination, it’s risen by nearly 20 degrees.
Since our group consists of several men and only two women, Mona thinks it is unlikely we will be allowed to enter one of the Israeli-owned beach clubs, which are dotted along this stretch of the Dead Sea. Even after watching several groups of Israelis heading into one resort without any hassle, it doesn’t seem to bother them. One of the guys, a lanky twenty-three-year-old called Malek, says it’s just another barrier and shrugs it off dismissively: “We’re Palestinians, we’ll always find a way.”
And they do. We drive on down the coast – lined with yet more barbed wire – and come to a place where a jagged hole has been cut. “You see, there are always special gates for Palestinians,” Malek points out.
Crawling through the opening in the fence, the group makes its way across the squalid ground, which is covered with bits of metal. It lacks the amenities and holiday charm of the beach clubs just around the corner, but other Palestinian families start to arrive. Not wanting to sit on the muddy ground, we leave after spending less than an hour by the Dead Sea.
I ask Mona if it was worth the trip. “We don’t have a lot of choice, there aren’t many places we can go,” she laughs, but moves on quickly and doesn’t dwell. “It’s just the way it is.”
The night-time exploits and adrenaline-fuelled missions are not the only side of Mona’s life. She is also a young Muslim woman who is expected to conform to traditions and fulfill strong obligations to her family.
“My mum, you know she puts the Koran in my car,” Mona says, pulling out the book that’s been shoved in the side pocket of the door. “She thinks it will keep me safe. But I’m not really religious.”
Mona’s mother, Nami, is a tall, round woman who looks nothing like her petite daughter. After the death of Mona’s father, she raised Mona and her younger sister on her own. Although some families are reluctant to let their daughters compete in such a male-dominated sport, she says she loves to watch Mona driving and has never missed a race. “My daughter, she is crazy. Every day I tell her she is crazy. But what she does is very brave,” she says.
The family has gathered to celebrate a wedding. As Mona’s mother, cousins and aunts – each wearing a brightly coloured headscarf – start dancing together in front of the newly wedded couple, a few stares are directed towards Mona, who’s wearing tight skinny jeans and a white, short-sleeved top. There are more than a hundred women in the room, and she is the only one not wearing traditional clothes.
Mona says they often talk about her – about what she does or wears – and for the first time since we’ve been here, she looks awkward. “I’m the lucky one,” she says. “My mum tells me to ignore them. If I didn’t have a mum that let me be free, I’d die.”
Yet as another family wedding approaches later that week, we arrive at the Mona’s small apartment to find her in full traditional attire. She looks uncomfortable and cannot do up the belt that accompanies the floor-length red dress. “It’s stupid,” she says. “How will I even drive my car in this?”
As our time in Ramallah draws to a close, we meet Mona at SnowBar for a final drink. I have not seen her with her boyfriend for several days and ask where he is.
She tells me she is avoiding him.
I ask if she has thought about marriage. “My family say it’s nearly time, but we have some problems,” she says, biting her lip. “He is very jealous, and very traditional.”
She says she fears that if she marries him, he will stop her from going out and – worst of all – will stop her racing.
“I am worried he will want a wife who is at home with the children, and right now, I don’t want that,” she says.
“So what will you do?” I ask.
“For now, I will just wait. For now, I can breathe.”