Rim Haddad
Last updated: 14 November, 2014

Racing fans return to Damascus tracks with a glimmer of hope

As cars roar around a track on the outskirts of Damascus, motorsport fans for a moment forget the misery of Syria's civil war and revel in the thrill of the race.

For the first time since Syria’s devastating conflict broke out in March 2011, the capital’s regular “drift racing” championship has returned this autumn.

For the fans, and for drivers like Zaher Dahkul, the Friday races offer a rare chance to switch off from the violence.

“The most beautiful thing about this sport is that when you put on your helmet and fasten your seatbelt, you can just forget about all the country’s problems,” said Dahkul, a championship hopeful who has won several local and international prizes.

Last organised in 2010, the races were once a regional draw, attracting drivers and hundreds of fans from across Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.


In the past month, drift racers have brought the championship back to life on Fridays, with the number of contestants rising steadily.

Brought to wider attention by “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” — the 2006 entry in the popular Hollywood racing film franchise — “drifting” involves drivers forcing their cars to slide sideways during turns and makes for spectacular races.

Some of the drivers are professionals, but many are amateurs, paying to enter the race and using their regular vehicles.

Close to the Damascus airport road, the privately owned Zaman al-Khair (Good Times) racing circuit was until recently closed by fighting between rebel forces and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.


But the area around the airport fell squarely back under government control in recent weeks and now the races and their fans have returned.

“Everyone is happy that the races are back… Now that the place is safe, the crowds are growing every time,” 18-year-old university student Mohammad al-Afghani told AFP, excitedly watching a recent race despite the rain.

Syria’s war has left more than 195,000 people dead, forced millions from their homes and thrown more than half the population into poverty.


Afghani said he would love to join the race with his own vehicle but he cannot afford the 3,000 Syrian pound ($15) entry fee.

“I don’t have the resources. I barely have enough to support myself,” he said.

Organisers were still able to attract 20 contestants to a recent race, which they described as “an amazing turnout”.

One of the organisers, Khaled al-Atassi, said the Syrian automobile club he once headed started organising drifting championships “because of their popularity, and because of their relatively low cost in comparison to other car races”.

Atassi said he hopes the competition will be a stepping stone to bringing back other, bigger races, like the yearly Discover Syria rally that was launched in 2003 but interrupted when the war began.

Usan, a 26-year-old law student and fan, said she sees in the return of drift racing a sign that Syria will eventually get back on its feet.

“Things are getting better,” she told AFP, waiting for the race to begin.

“We may not be able to get back our old lives immediately, but we will make it, step by step.”