By Ola Noureldin
CAIRO, May 19 – When Yara Shalaby got lost in the desert during her first race, she felt she had handed victory to all those who had mocked her decision to become Egypt’s first woman rally driver.
“I was told: ‘You’re a girl, you can’t race. Girls can barely drive on asphalt, let alone race in a desert’,” the 34-year-old said.
“All the depressing people around me were happy with this experience because it proved them right. But I was not (happy),” she said of her failure to make the finish line in Egypt’s El Gouna Rally Cup in 2013.
Six months later, when she came second in what was only her second rally, the El Remal Desert Challenge in Egypt’s western desert, Shalaby’s critics were forced to think again.
She went on to compete in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates and ranked first in her category in Egypt’s Pharaons International Cross Country Rally in 2014.
In further proof that rally driving is not a male-only sport, this year Shalaby set up the Middle East’s first women’s rally team, the Gazelle Rally which has seven drivers and has secured sponsorship for 2016.
Sporting a black team-shirt, Shalaby climbs into her Land Cruiser to show off her skills behind the wheel, leaving a cloud of dust as she speeds into the sand on the eastern edge of Cairo, looping and twisting through the scrub.
Egypt, whose rough, dry terrain lends itself to off-road driving, used to be a stop on the Dakar Rally, the famous endurance challenge launched in 1978. The race shifted to Latin America in 2009 due to security concerns.
Shalaby, who juggles her roles as mother of a six-year-old boy, IT specialist at a bank and professional rally driver, has always been drawn to the desert.
“I loved the desert environment since I was a kid. I used to go on safaris and camps all the time, but being able to race in the desert gives me a special rush and joy,” she said.
“When I first started racing, male drivers used to tease me … But now, I get really good feedback from them. They are usually very excited about my achievements and they constantly encourage me.”