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Sonia Ayoub Conquers the Desert – Once Again

Sonia Ayoub & Françoise Jacquier Rally For a Good Cause

Driving through sand dunes and spending lonely nights underneath a sky lit only by the stars has become a passion for Sonia Ayoub.  Ever since she experienced the Moroccan desert as a rally driver in 2002, Ayoub has developed a deep love for it.  Year after year, she returns to face the challenges the Moroccan interior has to offer – sand dunes that are difficult to conquer, and grueling desert terrain that cause flat tires – all under a burning sun.
 
Sonia Ayoub is Lebanon’s only female rally driver, and one of the few Arab women to participate in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles that takes place in Morocco every year. The rally is a unique adventure and one of its kind in the world.  It is a women’s sporting event that tests the navigation skills and endurance of contestants as they spend eight days driving on a pre-defined off-road trail in the heart of the Moroccan Sahara, covering over 2,500 kilometers.  
 
During the rally, women from all ages and nationalities drive 4x4s, motorbikes and trucks through the desert, relying on their own navigation skills, while serving as car mechanics whenever their vehicle breaks down. What counts in this rally is not the speed, but rather the navigation skills that help the Gazelles to reach the compulsory check points and travel to the next bivouac in the shortest distance without using GPS or any modern technical equipment.
 
In Beirut, Ayoub is known as a successful businesswoman who is often spotted at glamorous gatherings and social events. When abroad, she attends fashion shows in Paris and New York City together with her sister Mouna Ayoub, one of the world’s richest women. Sonia Ayoub has a faible for yellow gold jewelry, and her hands are always adorned with spectacular rings – it’s hard to believe that in the desert, these hands get blisters from shoveling sand to dig out the wheels of her Pajero. Ayoub is indeed an amazing woman; she has not only the appeal of a society lady, but also nerves of steel, determination and willpower. 
 
For almost one month every year, Ayoub changes her high heels for boots and her fashionable clothes for army pants. In the desert, there is no use for lipsticks or mascara, but rather for sunscreen. Her indispensable items include water tanks, spare wheels, a generator and a sleeping bag. There is no cook to prepare the food, instead, Ayoub and her co-pilot, Françoise Jacquier, have to boil one of the army rations they take along for their adventure. Life in the sand dunes takes you back to the basics – but that’s what the 50-year-old society lady likes to experience. 
 
Throughout the year, Ayoub has been following a tough training program that includes stretching, weight lifting, aerobics and Pilates in order to prepare herself for the rally. Her hands have to be strong for the sand shoveling, and her back muscles need to be strengthened for the many hours spent behind the steering wheel while driving on a difficult terrain. She also needs to build up the strength she needs for walking long distances, which she does during the rally in order to check the territory before driving through it.
 
One week of training in Morocco was the only on-the-ground-practice the driver and her navigator got beforehand. During the rally, the teams have to find their way around using nothing but maps and a compass, which makes the mission very difficult.  “This is the hard part, because in the desert, there are only a few points of reference,” said Ayoub. 
 
“When you are stuck in the middle of the sand dunes, you can get very desperate,” admitted Ayoub. “During my first two races, I sometimes wondered why I was here and putting myself through this.  But when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, you realize that there’s only one way out; you can’t go back, so you must continue. That forces you to keep on going and not to give up. The whole experience is really a great challenge both physically and psychologically.  The rally made me learn a lot about myself and push my limits to a new level.”  
 
This year’s rally which lasted from April 22 to May 1, 2004 was the third for Ayoub, so returning to Morocco for the training was like going to a big family reunion of rally aficionados. Reuniting with old friends and forging new friendships is an important part of the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles.  This year, the event attracted 148 women who share a passion for driving and a love for the desert.  Participants were from all walks of life representing 12 different countries including Japan, Brazil, Lebanon, Canada, France, and the United States.  
 
“Women solidarity is very important during the race,” said Ayoub, who’s referred to as the godmother of the rally because of the help she extends to other Gazelles.  “When the car of one team flips over, or is stuck, or is experiencing a problem, another team comes to the rescue.”  The teams could call the car mechanic for assistance, but by doing so they lose points. So the participants prefer to help each other out. In the end, what counts is not the speed, but the navigational and driving skills that take them from one check point to the other while traveling the shortest distance. 
 
“Sometimes you get lost,” said Ayoub, “this means the team has to spend the night in the desert.”  Setting up a tent amid scorpions in the chilly desert nights is an option, but many resort to just sleeping in the car as they are too exhausted by the end of the day.  Those who make it to the camp enjoy a nice shower and the company of the other Gazelles with whom they share the day’s experiences, some special stories, some songs, or just the great silence of the desert. “You find the spirit of the desert only in the desert. It is hard to duplicate,” Ayoub said. 
 
Participants in the Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles don’t compete for money, but rather to support a good cause. The winners receives $37,000 for the charity of their choice.  This year, Ayoub chose the Association Sésame Autisme Ile de France – a French association that cares for autistic people.   The organization sponsors Ayoub’s desert adventure, and she chose to run for them because autism is a cause she can personally relate to as one of her relatives is affected by this dysfunction. The association is trying to raise funds to build a home for 28 autistic adults and to help them integrate in society. 
 
“Very little is known about autism,” Ayoub explained, “it’s a dysfunction that is hard to find a cure for.” In Lebanon, an association formed by affected parents is trying to make a difference. So far, 13 people have been helped, but there are over 150 homes that have autistic family members who don’t get any help. “I hope that the rally will help to raise awareness about this strange disease,” she added. 
 
Also, the people who live in the desert usually receive some help. In her Pajero, Ayoub carries pencils, notebooks and clothes for the Bedouin children. A doctor who comes along with the rally makes medical check-ups in his mobile clinic. Last year, he even performed a surgery in the middle of the desert on a child who wasn’t able to speak because of a minor physical abnormality. The small operation solved the problem.
 
Mitsubishi and our own Today’s Outlook magazine were delighted to be the sponsors for Sonia Ayoub and Françoise Jacquier in the 2004 Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles. For next year’s rally, Ayoub hopes to find full sponsorship so that she can race for a good cause again – this time for the Lebanese association that cares for autistic people.
 
The addictive serenity and splendor of the desert, the love for adventure, and the spirit of camaraderie among the competitors keep bringing Ayoub back to the rally year after year. “The rally makes you compete with yourself.  It pushes you to go beyond your limits and to master the challenges you’re facing,” she enthused.  “It even sends positive vibrations to your normal, daily life because it makes you look at things positively and focus on solutions rather than dwell on problems. It really ignites that energy inside you.”

 

 
From Sonia Ayoub’s diary:
 
Day 1:
We woke up at 4am and had our briefing at 5am.  We studied the maps over our morning coffee and at 7am the 74 teams left for a 150-kilometer trip around the area of Erfoud. It was an easy day to start with – no major sand storms or complications. 
 
Day 2: 
The not-so-great morning coffee didn’t ruin our happy mood. Today was a tough day though. We left Erfoud behind and spent the day navigating in the immense sand dunes.  There was nothing but sand as far as the eye could see. We got stuck on several occasions and spent quite some time shoveling sand. 
 
Day 3:
We spent the night at a Bedouin village – well, the village consisted of nothing but a group of tents. The locals welcomed us with musicians and dancers and shared with us some couscous and dates.  That was a nice change to the desert’s loneliness! However, we were exhausted. The day had been extremely difficult – the sun burned without mercy and there were sand dunes everywhere. The landscapes, though, were absolutely breathtaking!
 
Day 4:
We were still tired from the previous day, which had been very exhausting. Today the route was more relaxing, no difficult sand dunes to cross! We drove on long, straight roads – we had to be careful not to fall asleep. The breakdown of this day: 15 cars needed urgent repair; 30 tires exploded on the way and two radiators broke down. No sleep for the car mechanics!
 
Day 5:
Today was the last day. Most teams started at 6am. We didn’t face many difficulties and got to admire the landscapes that displayed many captivating colors – from black to bronze to light yellow. We drove by a beautiful oasis, so we stopped there and enjoyed ourselves a little bit before hitting the road again.
 
Day 6:
We were welcomed by a large group of people in Marrakech, where the celebration of this year’s rally took place. We are all tired but at the same time very happy. It’s very emotional to say goodbye to all these wonderful women.  We are taking with us what we cherish the most about this rally: solidarity, spirit of adventure and great friendships. We will continue to practice the Gazelles’ motto: ‘One for all, and all for one.’  In the end, that’s what the rally is all about.
Emilio Pucci 2019
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