x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Racing for Palestinian heritage and culture

Saad Salman, a Palestinian national living in the UAE, hopes his showing at the UAE GT Championship will help change people's attitude towards the Palestinian Territories.

Saad Salman racing at Dubai Autodrome. Courtesy of Sayel Racing
Saad Salman racing at Dubai Autodrome. Courtesy of Sayel Racing

Racing in a KTM X-Bow with livery in the Palestinian kaffiyeh design, Saad Salman, the driver for Sayel Racing, is making a cultural statement with his car rather than a political one.

"We wanted to reflect our Palestinian heritage in a non-political way," says Salman, who has made his professional racing debut in the UAE GT Championship.

So far, Sayel Racing has also experienced success in this year's UAE GT championship, most recently winning the last round at Yas Marina Circuit on February 12 and hoping for more success in the next round at Dubai Autodrome on Friday.

"I am shocked at the results we are getting especially as it is our first season with this car on the track," says Salman.

"I'd done a lot of track events but never any professional racing, just karting, but I wanted to take the next step," says the 30-year-old racer who is a trained mechanical engineer and has a day job as the managing director of Sayel International Architecture.

Although he grew up in the UAE and holds a Palestinian passport, Salman has never been to the territories but says that he tries to hold on to his "roots and heritage".

"Growing up in the UAE, we cannot become citizens so we keep our nationality, it keeps us tied back to Palestine."

The team is named after Salman's grandfather, whose surname was Sayel. He was a leading figure in the Palestinian military and was assassinated in 1982 in Syria. But rather than dwell on the circumstances surrounding the death, Salman says he would prefer to remember his grandfather in a positive way through the racing team.

"People who knew him respected him [and had] good things to say about him."

Salman hopes that his team can contribute to changing people's attitudes towards the Palestine Territories.

"When people think of Palestine it tends to be very political or religious, all conflict or war-inspired but we want to put Palestinian heritage and culture in the public eye," he says.

The response to Sayel Racing in its first season on the tracks of the UAE has been largely positive, according to Salman.

"I have been quite surprised - we have more than 2,500 fans on Facebook and the majority are people we don't know - it is just likeminded people getting together," Salman says of the team's diverse fanbase.

"We even have Israeli fans on Facebook and we are very proud of that."

He says that at every race they do a tribute to the territories and post the tribute on their website, to make people aware of other aspects of Palestinian life and culture away from the political troubles. The olive tree, which is essential to the Palestinian economy, has been one such tribute.

"We also did a tribute to Sheikh Zayed as he was a big supporter of Palestine and he provided a home for many Palestinians in the UAE, like us," says Salman.

Salman's wife, Sima Farouki, the team's public relations director, agrees that Sayel Racing is not about getting political and says that they want to have fun with their racing while representing the Palestine Territories in a positive way.

"We want to represent ourselves as Palestinian by the way we present ourselves at the track as professionals," says Farouki.

She adds that her cupcakes, decorated with the team logo, have proved very popular at the UAE tracks.

"We are competitive - and we have cupcakes!" she laughs.

As well as the kaffiyeh livery on the X-Bow, the car also features Handala, a Palestinian cartoon character as the team mascot.

"Handala ... is always barefoot with his back turned - he has come to be an icon," explains Salman. "We designed 'Racing Handala' and checked the copyright - the artist has passed away and [Handala] has become a symbol for solidarity.

"The car was designed in Dubai and the concept for the car was from us - I was sketching a lot of drawings on my iPad," says Salman.

He chose the X-Bow for his race car after driving it on track days and not only did he feel comfortable driving it, but he found the car attracted a lot of attention.

"In Dubai, it gets surrounded and people take pictures with their phones - the car is a rock star," says Ziad Mikhael, a close friend of Salman and the team's official photographer.

"I help by taking photos of the events, it started off me just as a friend taking pictures but I do it all the time now, it just got bigger," says Mikhael.

On the track, Salman says he enjoys the "healthy competition" especially between himself and the Ginetta G50, raced by Joe Ghanem.

Salman stresses that it is a team effort - as well as his wife and Mikhael, he has two other friends involved with Sayel Racing - Mounir Habib handles public relations and Maezar Jackoush is the videographer. AUH Motorsports, meanwhile, a crew more familiar with working on the Radical racers in the UAE provide the mechanical work and technical support for Sayel Racing: "It has been a great learning curve for both of us - we are new to racing and they have never worked on a X-Bow before," says Salman.

Sponsorship, the lifeblood of any successful race team, have also been forthcoming with the Palestine Electric Company and Morganti, an international company that is part-owned by Palestinians, helping the team financially. Salman says the team hopes to go from strength to strength in future seasons: "We have bigger goals but they have to be sustainable - we will see how far we can go."

He has also test-driven Radicals under the tutelage of Jordan Grogor, a leading Radical driver based in the UAE, and qualified first for one race and third for another, and attained second place in both races.

Farouki says she hopes they can finally visit the Palestinian Territories and when they do so, the team would like to bring some kind of motorsport event to their homeland with the simple intention of : "We would like to set up an event that is not for charity, just a chance for people to feel normal, and to inspire people, something to show people they are not forgotten."