x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Street racing queen of Ramallah

Mona Ennab has two speeds: fast, and faster, and she uses them both while street racing in Ramallah. She says she needs the freedom to breathe, and finds it in a man's world.

On the way back from a visit to Jericho, Mona Ennab climbs out of the sunroof of her boyfriend’s car and shouts at an Israeli checkpoint.
On the way back from a visit to Jericho, Mona Ennab climbs out of the sunroof of her boyfriend’s car and shouts at an Israeli checkpoint.

Mona takes a long drag on her cigarette. She is the first to arrive tonight, and nervously taps the steering wheel of her silver Opal Astra, watching, waiting.

The low, menacing rumble of the cars reaches us long before we see them.

They are on their way.

We are at a dusty piece of tarmac the size of a football pitch on the outskirts of Ramallah. It is a piece of land that marks the end of the West Bank. Running alongside us is a barbed-wire fence, separating the occupied Palestinian West Bank from Israel. An Israeli watchtower looms nearby, and occasionally, a green-clad soldier becomes visible, peering curiously at the scene unfolding a few metres away, a scene that occurs weekly.

Ramallah's street racers have arrived. There are 18 of them, macho-looking Palestinian men, each with a modified BMW, Mercedes or Volkswagen. Lined up, engines revving, they take no notice of the Israeli military vehicles patrolling on the other side of the fence.

This evening, 24-year-old Mona Ennab and a handful of other twenty-something women are joining their male counterparts. They are street racers, too, and wait their turn at the obstacle course laid out in front of them.

One by one they're timed as they speed around the course - pulling handbrake turns, performing "doughnut" spins and weaving in and out of orange cones. The emphasis is on agility and control, although they hit speeds of up to 80kph.

It is not only mentally tough, but also physically demanding. Buckled into Mona's passenger seat, my head is repeatedly thrown against the window as we spin in seemingly endless circles. Mona laughs at my white knuckles gripping the door handle. The she wears gloves when she competes, her hands are covered in blisters.

She says she is addicted to the speed, and feels unstoppable when she's behind the wheel. "I love people watching me, I like showing them what I can do," she says.

Together, the men and women are a team - Team Ramallah - 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're under the guidance of the Palestinian Motorsport Federation, an organisation that has gained support from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, himself.

After a few hours, 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 this city is home to a thriving nightlife.

We follow the group to SnowBar - an open-air club that sits nestled in one of Ramallah's many hills. US hip-hop booms from the speakers, and the queue at the bar is four deep.

Mona has changed out of her racing attire and is in a denim jumpsuit, a fashion item that has made a comeback. Her eyes are heavily lined with matching blue makeup.

Having lived in Ramallah all her life, Mona is well-known among this crowd. At just 19, she became the first female street racer in the West Bank after being spotted speeding through the city's narrow roads and lanes by the head of the Motorsport Federation.

At first the men laughed, and during races, even when she was on the right course, they would distract her by shouting "wrong road" - an instant disqualification. But it didn't put her off. She simply locked the doors and turned up her Arabic house music.

"I am the fastest woman in Palestine," she says.

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 serve as their party headquarters until it closes, at 4am.

But before we reach the bar, Mona pulls us towards a dimly lit outdoor swimming pool, which the SnowBar normally uses to pull in the daytime crowds.

We watch cautiously as she heads down the steps, takes off her outer layers of clothing to reveal shorts and a strappy vest top, and jumps in the pool. Her shrieks and splashes fill the night air. A cool breeze has picked up, whipping through the valley; 10 minutes later she is out of the pool. Quickly getting dressed and laughing, she says she likes to do things that surprise people.

"In life you have to have fun," she says, and we rush to catch up with the boys.

The following day, Mona and her boyfriend, Mahmoud, meet us in downtown Ramallah. He is 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 convoy to a place they go every Friday - the Dead Sea.

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 60 per cent of the West Bank.

Today the racers are allowed by the soldiers to pass the checkpoint without stopping. We are soon racing across the open desert at 160kph, slowing down when we see Israeli police. The car's thermometer gauge edges upwards, and by the time we've reached our destination, less than an hour later, 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. Instead, we drive farther down the coast - which is lined with yet more barbed-wire fencing - and come to a place where a jagged hole has been cut into the fence.

Crawling through the opening, the group makes its way across the squalid ground covered with bits of barbed wire. It lacks the amenities and holiday charm of a beach club, and not wanting to sit on the muddy ground, we leave after spending less than an hour in the place.

You don't have to spend much time with Mona to realise what an exhausting life she leads. Not only is she a competitive racer, the manager of a car rental company and a socialite who can get by on only a few hours sleep a night; she is also a young Muslim woman who has strong obligations to her family.

The first time I meet Mona's mother is at her cousin's wedding. 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 as racing, she says she loves to watch Mona driving and has never missed a race.

As Mona's mother, cousins and aunts - each wearing a brightly coloured headscarf - start dancing together in front of the newly wedded couple, I notice a few of them staring at Mona. 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 I have met her, 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 family's small apartment to find Mona in full traditional dress. She has decided that sometimes it is proper to wear traditional clothes to family occasions, but looks ill at ease 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?"

On our final night in Ramallah we meet Mona at SnowBar. I have not seen her with her boyfriend for several days and I 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 tells me she fears that if she marries him, he will stop her from going out and - worst of all - will stop her from 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."