The Damascus Express

[caption id="attachment_55244234" align="alignnone" width="620"]A scene from Round Trip (Meyar Al Roumi, 2012) A scene from Round Trip (Meyar Al Roumi, 2012)[/caption]

His voice was soft and jaunty, with that endearing sing-song rhythm of the Damascus dialect. Meyar Al-Roumi, a Syrian director, wore John Lennon spectacles and curly brown hair for the UK premiere of his latest feature film, Round Trip. On the stage of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, his unassuming demeanor soon revealed a certain cheeky, rebellious streak that is clearly evident in this most recent cinematic offering.

Round Trip tells the tale of a Damascene taxi driver, Walid (Ammar Haj Ahmad), and his girlfriend, Suhair (Alexandra Kahwagi), and their quest for intimacy and privacy outside the confines of Walid’s taxi cab. They find the perfect hideaway in the form of a sleeper train from Damascus to Tehran.

The film is at heart a story of forbidden love, but without all the usual clichés found in the romances of Arab soap operas. There are no vengeful relatives or shamed lovers. The absence of familial meddling appears to be a deliberate move on the director’s part, to focus the narrative on the dynamics of the couple’s relationship instead of the drama of outside interference. (Relatives never make it on screen but instead are heard or talked about from a distance.) Roumi explained that he intended the film to be emotional, but far from the melodrama so popular in the films of the region.

The director’s unique approach proved problematic when casting the roles in Damascus. In the end, he found a Lebanese actress who suited the less theatrical acting method he was looking for. Alexandra Kahwagi beautifully renders the reckless and immature, yet far from innocent, Suhair. She is cast as the more adventurous of the two—also a deliberate move on the director’s part. “Courage is more associated with the woman,” said Roumi, who has Suhair take the lead in the couple’s escapade to Tehran.

The journey begins at Damascus’s famed Hijaz railway station. Roumi pays homage to Syria’s great railway history as Walid buys his tickets at the Ottoman-era booth. (The station no longer operates, and last I heard it had been turned into a bookshop.) The train pulls out and makes its way north across Homs province towards Aleppo and onwards to Turkey and Iran.

The journey across Syria is a form of escapism not only for the couple but the audience, too. Shot before the outbreak of Syria’s revolution and civil war, Round Trip transports you back to more peaceful times. For the first time in a long time there was something to smile about concerning Syria. Children run playfully down the aisles, the couple makes friends with the ticket inspector and everything is blissfully normal.

It is in its depiction of the everyday mundanities that this film really excels. There is a simultaneously tense and comical moment when the Turkish passport inspector boards the train and everyone pulls a serious face, and then laughs with relief once he passes on to the next carriage. And there are inevitably awkward moments for the couple to experience as they get to know one another better. These encounters are familiar to many of us.

The film received praise for its shots of Syria’s scenery, and Roumi made clear that the country’s natural beauty greatly inspired the making of the film. I have to admit to being rather disappointed by the short snippets of Syrian landscape allowed through the window of Walid and Suhair’s couchette. The journey passed through some of Syria’s most stunning landscape, but the olive, fig and cypress trees of Idlib province never made it onto the screen. So much more could have been done to capture Syria’s beauty.

But in the end, this film was about the couple and their rather ordinary relationship. It was refreshing to watch a film set in a Middle Eastern context that focused more on the similarities of the universal human experience rather than the differences that divide us. In today’s Syria, this is perhaps more important than any other message.