Bushy moustaches, thick Syrian accents, fistfights in 1930s Damascus and... medical masks? A parody of an iconic Syrian television show is raising awareness on curbing the coronavirus in neighboring Iraq.
Artists in Iraq’s southern port city of Basra have adapted the beloved characters of “Bab al-Hara” – the 10-season period drama watched across the Arab world – to convince their compatriots to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
In one skit, the show’s main character Abu Issam returns to Damascus unannounced after a long absence, just in time to keep his son from getting into a street fight.
“Put on your mask!” Abu Issam, played by Iraqi artist Mohammad Qassem, scolds his son.
When his wife -- also played by Qassem -- later draws close to welcome him home, Abu Issam slaps her.
“Don’t you know that hugging and kissing is forbidden? We’re in the time of corona(virus)! Disinfect the house!”
The scenes are meant to be light-hearted, but the messages behind them are no laughing matter, Qassem told AFP.
“We created these skits to raise the public’s awareness of what measures the health ministry has asked them to commit to, how to disinfect and clean your hands, and how to abide by the lockdown,” he said.
‘The world is crazy’
Iraq imposed a nationwide lockdown in mid-March to combat the spread of the virus, but relaxed measures to an evening and weekend curfew last week.
People quickly flooded the streets and stores opened across the country, with very few practising social distancing or wearing masks and gloves.
The language of comedy could convince people to take preventative action against the virus in ways government orders could not, said Youssef al-Hajjaj, who plays Abu Issam’s son in the “Bab al-Hara” parody.
“These sketches use comedy to spread information about staying protected when leaving your homes,” Hajjaj said.
Pop hits have also been used to persuade Iraqis to stay home, including a remixed music video of a beloved Egyptian hit featuring a police officer at a checkpoint.
“Corona’s got us under curfew here, the world is crazy and full of fear,” he croons.
Iraqi singers Wissam Daoud and Thaer Hazem were quick to put out their own tune, a ballad set to the jumpy percussion typical of Iraqi music.
“Be careful and don’t go out, it’ll get easier day by day. That’s how you’ll stay well and this crisis will go away,” they advise.
Iraq has recorded more than 2,000 novel coronavirus cases, including over 90 deaths, although many expect the real number of cases is much higher, as authorities have yet to introduce widespread testing or contact tracing.
Basra, where health services are notoriously poor, is witnessing an uptick in COVID-19 infections, with nearly 100 new cases in recent days raising the total to 450.
Authorities fear a jump in case numbers could overwhelm Iraq’s dilapidated health system – ravaged by decades of conflict and under-developed due to little investment and widespread corruption.