Youth and disposable income have come together—as they often do—in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), giving rise to “Hajwalah,” an unregulated motorsport in which drivers risk their lives to slide—or “drift”—their modified SUVs across roadways at high speeds. New York City-based photographer Peter Garritano traveled to the UAE earlier this year to photograph the subculture. His color photographs depict several “groups” of drivers who drift SUVs on desert roads in the UAE.
Hajwalah reportedly originated in Saudi Arabia more than a decade ago. Garritano first learned of the culture when car enthusiast friends showed him the Hajwalah videos that began appearing on the web ten years ago. “It was some of the wildest driving I’d ever seen, and I was drawn in,” Garritano recalls. The drifters were driving on public roads, endangering others as well as themselves, which led to crackdowns and a transition for the practice to more organized gatherings on private, unpopulated roadways.
In the UAE, Garritano told PDN in an email, “Drifters have largely moved off of public roads and onto private strips of asphalt tucked away in more rural parts of the desert. There, free from the increasing threat of prosecution, the community is developing [a] more formal structure as drivers compete to display the greatest apparent recklessness.” Garritano was interested in capturing the transition, documenting different groups of drivers as they met with each other to compete.
Drifting isn’t about speed, it’s about style, he explains. “It’s also so dangerous and that’s a big part of it, courting death is somehow part of the objective.”
To gain access, he got in touch on Instagram with drivers and the garages that are building the modified SUVs. The vehicles often appear normal to the untrained eye, but have modified suspensions and engines that run on racing fuel. Eventually Garritano convinced a few drivers to “show me around once I was over there,” he says.
He made the images using both a Mamiya 7ii film camera, and a DSLR , which allowed him to shoot in low light. The contrast of the “beautiful, monochromatic and peaceful” UAE deserts with the sliding cars and smoking tires “makes for a very nice visual,” Garritano notes.
The impulse that motivates the Hajwalah drivers—toward danger, away from common sense and authority—is “pretty ubiquitous among young men around the world,” Garritano notes. (The illegal drag racing of early American hot rod culture certainly comes to mind.) “I remember when I first got my car, I just wanted to try and do all sorts of impossible things that I’d seen in movies. Hajwalah seems to have been born from that same instinct but in a place where young men have more disposable income and fewer ways to spend it. Also, maybe less of a fear of death. One person I spoke with said, ‘People think we are hooligans but there are hooligans everywhere, we’re just hooligans with money,’ and I think that sums it up in a way.”
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