“Bushy moustaches, thick Syrian accents, fistfights in 1930s Damascus and...medical masks?” 

A comedy troupe in Iraq’s southern port city of Basra has taken the iconic Syrian soap opera Bab Al Hara which ran for 10 seasons and was watched by tens of millions of Arabs worldwide – as their parody canvas to raise awareness about pandemic safety measures, in the most recent attempt to fight virus with virality.

In one skit, a brawl erupts between walking machismo archetypes – with a khanjar tucked into a waistbelt, no less – but is interrupted by the main character Abu Issam (played by Mohammed Qassem) returning to Damascus from quarantine, who yells at Issam to put on a mask before he gets into a street fight. 

Lighthearted (and lightly misogynistic, with Abu Issam violently reprimanding his wife for trying to embrace him), the skit is a comedic avenue for awareness, especially as many begin feeling ‘quarantine fatigue’

After Iraq recently relaxed its strict lockdown into an evening and weekend curfew, the country’s streets and stores were flooded with people, few of whom wore masks and gloves, or maintained safe distances from each other. “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.

Iraq has reported 2,296 cases of coronavirus and 97 deaths as of Monday, May 4th, but experts warn the numbers are much higher, due to the country’s limited testing capabilities. Authorities fear a jump in case numbers could overwhelm Iraq’s dilapidated health system, particularly in historically disenfranchised areas like Basra, where decades of conflict and neglect have left a broken infrastructure in place.

Another viral video of the troupe was a parody of Egyptian pop hit ‘Bent El Geran,’ remixed in appreciation of frontline medical, janitorial, and security staff.

Viewed millions of times across Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, these and similar comedy sketches and music parodies are far more impactful than conventional communications strategies. “Awareness through videos is one of the most important tools we have to persuade people to protect themselves,” said director Mustafa al-Karkhy. “These videos are why people stay safe.”

Photo by Hussein Faleh for AFP.