Tempting the Grim Reaper on dusty Arabian streets

What is the single most stupid driving activity you can think of right now? Drunk-driving? Hitting 200 km/h in the middle of town? Running red lights with blatant disregard for cross-junctions?

Engaging the police in a high speed chase with the fuel gauge at E? Not even close. You have not seen the kind of things that our friends in the Middle East are capable of.

Witness one of these events, just one, and you will realise that when God created man, there was a shortage of grey matter, so some of us have roomy skulls. Welcome to the horrific world of Hagwalah.

It is hard to define just what exactly Hagwalah means. For one, it sounds like a hard-core Swahili insult for a dunderhead, and the people who take part in it fit that bill perfectly.

It could be a place, because from the video footage the venues all look similar, but it happens in Saudi Arabia where everywhere looks the same (sand, highways and buildings) so that is hard to tell.

It could be an activity, because the basis of Hagwalah is, in fact, one of the latest, fastest growing and most visually entertaining forms of motorsport: drifting.

Drifting is the act of intentionally causing a motor vehicle to oversteer. It started off with racing drivers as they tried to negotiate corners faster or without losing too many engine revs, before seeping into society as an underground-type of competition.

The dangers of drifting were obvious: it was done by young, often intoxicated and inexperienced drivers on public roads, there were no safety precautions whatsoever and lacking a proper points-scoring system, every drifting event almost always ended in altercations between warring drivers and factions.

This led to some forward-thinking individuals establishing formal series, the D1 Grand Prix and Formula D, where drivers could show off their skills in a controlled environment, in properly modified cars and under a standardised points system that produces a clear winner.

This is Hagwalah

Enter some backward-thinking jobless youths from Saudi Arabia. They took the sport of drifting back to its original roots, but lacking anything else to do, they have introduced a few touches that you might find interesting.

In these Hagwalah acts, you will notice that there is no actual competition taking place. It is just a group of young people trying to “have fun”.

That is what their lawyer would probably say, because if this is fun, I’d rather stick to my boring Hagwalah-less life. There is no time to compete because the drivers are too busy avoiding death and destruction.

Unlike proper drifting (originating in Japan), which was done at night because it was illegal, Hagwalah is done in broad daylight, and in front of as many witnesses as have the nerve to stand by and watch.

Normal drifting is done using vehicles specifically modified to do the job. Hagwalah is done using stock vehicles, almost always rented. If you have a car hire business in Saudi Arabia, I suggest you shut it down pronto. You might not have the stomach to watch these people do their stuff in your cars.

Sticking to cars, drifting is also the preserve of powerful rear-drive sports cars, because the breaking traction of the rear tyres might require a surfeit of torque to overcome grip levels.

The Arabs seem to prefer front-drive family saloons, the hardest imaginable vehicle to drift short of a Ford tractor. Of particular notoriety is the Toyota Camry.

The Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata have also been known to star in this madness, and one especially insane Hagwalah artist drifted a Toyota Hilux single cab pickup.

The final and scariest addition to Hagwalah over normal drifting is the number of people in the car. The Japanese would have the driver alone in the car, or at most, with one passenger next to him.

In Saudi Arabia, the more the merrier: sometimes these saloons are overloaded six-deep with screaming individuals (yes, the driver also screams), and the screams are not out of horror but out of glee.

More often than not half the passengers are hanging out of the car windows. The last video of Hagwalah I watched had three of the passengers toting loaded AK47 assault rifles releasing sporadic bursts of gunfire every now and then.

How it’s done

The procedure is this: find a slightly busy two-way street, preferably having multiple lanes, think Thika Road as it is right now. Curves are an added bonus.

Ensure it is broad daylight, and there are many people watching, especially if these people have cameras or video-enabled cell-phones. There must be traffic, preferably fuel tankers and school buses.

Pack your car chock-full of unwise forms of human life (your roomy-skulled friends) till the body work threatens to burst at the seams. Wind your vehicle up to about 140 km/h, turn the steering wheel hard to one side, yank the handbrake and struggle to control your wildly pirouetting vehicle as the six, seven or eight of you dice with death.

If you go for the Kalashnikov option, ask the people holding them to make sure none of their weapons is pointed at your head at any given moment during the “drift”. Wait a few hours for the video of your act to be uploaded on the Internet and try not to take the ensuing barrage of insults to heart.

As a scientist, I did notice there is a certain technique to Hagwalah-ing hard. Speed is essential, as is use of the handbrake to get the rear tyres sliding.

To keep grip from returning to the rear tyres as speed is shed, a few trips onto the sandy verge prove helpful, so the driver has to control his drift in such a way that the back end of the car sweeps over sandy patches of the road shoulder every five seconds or so. Control depends on how susceptible the driver is to car-sickness.

Skill or luck?

As far as control goes, one cannot say with any degree of confidence whether or not the drivers are extremely skilled or possess the uncanny good luck usually enjoyed by drunkards and the foolhardy.

From outside, much as the act itself will disgust or entertain you (depends), you have to be impressed by the accuracy with which these Hagwalah-ists place their vehicles on the road, cutting in front of trucks with only a few inches to spare, achieving insane angles of drift, executing chain drifts (several connected drifts, with opposing angles each time: very difficult to do in any car, let alone a front-drive vehicle equipped with traction control) and doing 1800s.

Wondering what an 1800 is? We know what a 360 is: doing a 360-degree spin and continuing in your intended direction of travel. Well, these clowns spin their leased cars a record four or five times in quick succession, and somehow manage to never lose their bearings in the process.

If and when the traction control overcomes the driver’s lack of wisdom, the car could do a full 180-degree turn, say clockwise, face backwards and correct itself, this time anticlockwise, facing forwards again; a sight even more spectacular than a 360. All this at speeds higher than 120 km/h.

One particular stunt had these people (same chaps with the AK 47s) try a 360 as they were overtaking a yellow school bus, and during the stunt, the car corrected itself, resulting in them overtaking the school bus, while going in reverse! All this time, their assault rifles were pointed at the petrified children in the bus. One slip of the trigger finger, just one…

The in-car videos are hilarious to say the least. They start off showing a stereotypical Middle Eastern man, complete with head-gear and flowing white robe, driving along sedately enough, searching for his favourite radio station when he suddenly reacts like he has just noticed an Egyptian cobra coiled around the steering column.

There is a flurry of activity: arms flailing all over, the video recording becomes very shaky and excited shouts can be heard from everyone inside the car.

It is pure bedlam, and unless you slow down the video, you will not even know what the driver is doing. It is like he has three hands, one on the wheel, one on the handbrake and one on the gear lever.

Murphy’s Law: Decapitation, dismemberment and death

If anything can go wrong, it will, as it so often does when humans tempt the hand of Fate, like our dear Arabs for instance. If their drifts are a sight to behold, even more spectacular is the outcome when the laws of physics take over. Cars flip end over end, cartwheeling and somersaulting into the enthralled crowd, ploughing some of the onlookers into the dirt like, well, a plough.

Due to the over-abundance of recording equipment on site, these videos get as many uploads on the Internet as the non-fatal Hagwalahs.

Graphic footage of corpses flying out of car windows and body parts raining on bewildered spectators as a Honda Accord gets pulverised into a cloud of tiny particles can be found on the Web with little effort. This is more disturbing than entertaining.

Socio-political impact

In Frederick Forsyth’s The Fist Of God, part of the story was the Western disbelief that Saddam Hussein could build a weapon complex enough to fire a missile far enough to hurt Western interests.

Someone was quoted as calling Arabs “a bunch of desert clowns wearing tea-towels on their heads too stupid to assemble a bicycle, let alone invent one”.

This is obviously not true, I have Arab friends, all are intelligent and some even impart motoring knowledge upon me; but our dear Hagwalah superstars are not helping matters, not at all.

Their activities have not gone unnoticed: first time I learnt about Hagwalah was way back in 2002, when they were drifting Toyota Mark IIs on the street.

It has since become wilder. Worldwide attention was recently brought innocuously enough by contemporary artiste M.I.A in the video of her song “Bad Girls”. There is some mild Hagwalah-ing in that video, starring a few 3-Series BMWs, an E Class Mercedes and a dusty Alfa Romeo 156.

It was not just fans of M.I.A who noticed the Hagwalah activities going on, the Saudi government did too. So when one recent drift went wrong and resulted in the deaths of two passengers in a car that was rammed by a drifter, the authorities came down hard on the drifter.

The fellow will be beheaded in a few days’ time. The government was quoted saying something to the effect that there was a lack of morality on the drifter’s part and whatnot, but I think what they really meant was that it is bad enough the world’s bigots do not trust Arab intellect without having online videos as supporting evidence, so such activities will have to be stopped by any means necessary.

Anthropologists blame the state itself for the proliferation of street drifting. Much as the kingdom is wealthy, this wealth is not evenly spread, and unemployment is rampant.

In a culture where they are not allowed to partake of alcohol, are not allowed to have sex outside marriage, cannot abuse narcotics (capital offence) and lacking the money for proper forms of diversion, Saudi Arabia’s idle youth find release in Hagwalah.

This, in my opinion, is a chicken-and-egg situation, because someone with the kind of mind that would lead him to a Hagwalah fest does not really qualify to be employed in any organisation. Imagine a taxi company trying to curb unemployment by engaging the services of Hagwalah veterans…

Bus madness

By the time I was through writing the main article, a new Hagwalah video had been uploaded. Always keen to outdo each other, this time the madmen were drifting a passenger bus… with passengers in it.

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