Basra, Iraq - Bushy moustaches, thick Syrian accents, fistfights in 1930s Damascus and... medical masks? A parody of a popular Syrian television show is raising awareness on curbing the coronavirus outbreak in neighbouring Iraq. Artists in Iraq’s southern port city of Basra have adapted the beloved characters of “Bab al-Hara” (“The Neighbourhood Gate”) -- a 10-season period drama watched across the Arab world -- to convince their compatriots to take the pandemic seriously.  In one skit, the show’s main character Abu Issam returns to the Syrian capital 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 are forbidden?

We’re in the time of corona(virus)! Disinfect the house!”   The scenes are meant to be lighthearted, 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. 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 as  stores opened across the country, with very few practising social distancing or wearing masks and gloves.

The language of comedy may 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

suspect 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 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 underdeveloped due to little investment and widespread corruption.

                  - ‘Stay strong’ -

 

                  Qassem and his team have dedicated songs to medical staff and other artists have produced skits to show solidarity with those working long hours at Iraqi hospitals.

                  One video depicts a young female nurse calling her husband from the hospital, tearfully confessing she was exhausted.

                  “Stay strong. It’s not any tougher than what we’ve already been through,” he tells her over the phone.

                  Artistic director Abdullah Khaled, 28, considered it an “artistic responsibility” to support medical staff and spread reliable information about the virus.

                  Another film his team produced features practical tips, including how to disinfect produce and limit outings to one person per household.

                  Khaled’s team says these videos, viewed thousands of times on Instagram, would have more of an impact than the government’s conventional communications strategy. 

                  “Awareness through videos is one of the most important tools we have to persuade people to protect themselves,” said the videos’ 29-year-old director Mustafa al-Karkhy.

                  “These videos are why people stay safe.”

 

 

Hollywood artist tutors Arabic-speaking kids during pandemic

 

                Los Angeles, May 3 (AFP/APP):It was during a phone conversation with her sister back in Qatar that the idea clicked for Hollywood animation artist Reem Ali Adeeb.

                  Like other regions across the world, young children in the Middle East were confined at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was not nearly enough original content online in Arabic to keep them entertained, such as fun tutorials and other activities.

                  So Ali Adeeb, a Syrian-born animation artist who works at Warner Bros. Entertainment in Los Angeles, and her sister Sandi, a university lecturer of pharmaceutics in Qatar, decided to take matters into their own hands.

                  The pair set up “Susupreemo,” a YouTube channel designed to help Arabic-speaking kids -- and their stressed-out parents -- weather the coronavirus lockdowns through basic tutorials on drawing, making origami or simply reading children’s books, all in Arabic.

                  “The idea is to create videos to engage the kids,” said Ali Adeeb, who at Warner Bros. has worked on children’s shows including “Green Eggs and Ham,” a Netflix animated series based on the Dr. Seuss classic.

                  “There’s tons of content on the web in English for kids but there is not enough original content in Arabic,” added the 34-year-old who is now working from home on the second season of the Netflix show. “So the aim is to make their screen time interactive and inspiring by drawing with them, reading them a story or doing crafts.”

                  Ali Adeeb said her sister’s 7-year-old son Omar has even joined in the fun, offering origami tutorials to his peers.

                  “He’s been the best. He’s done the most among us with three videos recorded already,” she said.

                  Ali Adeeb herself is using some of the characters from “Green Eggs and Ham,” notably Chickeraffe, a chicken/giraffe hybrid, to draw young viewers into her world.

                  Sandi for her part keeps her young audience focused and allows their imagination to travel by reading them children’s books.

                  “I thought I would read for kids during a time where buying or lending a book is very challenging, especially for some disadvantaged kids in some Arab countries,” she told AFP in an email.

                  “I started with a book suitable for children aged 3 to 6 years old and now I am selecting more books that can engage the kids for longer periods,” she added.

                 

                  - A new reality -

                 

                  The response, so far, has been overwhelmingly positive with children enthusiastically sharing their drawings via email and parents thankful for the opportunity to be able to hold work meetings online without being interrupted or just have some time for themselves.

                  In a region often wracked by war, and where children faced a harsh reality even before the pandemic, experts say such tutorials offer kids a reprieve whether in the comfort of their homes or even in refugee camps.

                  “Nowadays, children worldwide are confined in their homes and  children in the Middle East are no exception,” said Annamaria Laurini, the former head of UNICEF in Lebanon.

                  “Suddenly their own world has disappeared -- no more school, no more play with their friends and no more human interactions except with their family,” she added. “It’s a lonely reality that makes it difficult to dream, that confines their imagination to the walls of their room -- if they are so lucky to have one.”

                  Soha Bsat Boustani, a UNICEF consultant based in Beirut, said the YouTube tutorials are much needed in a region where such material in Arabic for children is lagging in terms of creativity and innovation.

                  “And so, initiatives like ‘Susupreemo’ can only be seen in a positive light as it gives children a healthy way out of confinement and a sense of normalcy.” 

                  So far Ali Adeeb, her sister and nephew have produced seven videos and they hope to continue with their project even after the pandemic.

                  “I’m thinking now of teaching kids how to draw popular cartoon characters ... and I’m hoping to open this space for other artists,” she said. “I have a friend who is a dancer and I would love for her to teach kids how to dance.

                  “There’s a lot more we can do.”