The Middle East and North Africa in LARP
The legacy of the Crusades as this cultural clash between a Christian Europe and the Muslim world is heavily influential when discussing medieval fantasy and LARP. This historical narrative still affects the kind of representation people from the Middle East and North Africa can expect in most fantasy settings.
We ourselves at Les Artisans d'Azure are somewhat guilty of this reductionist mindset, with most of our products of Middle Eastern influence being put in the same collection as anything related to the Crusades. While it is true that these wars were an important point of contact between the so-called Orient and Europe, there is much more History to be explored to inspire our fictional worlds.
It is important to acknowledge that the fantasy genre is often heavily influenced by a Eurocentric bias. When these stories venture into non-Western settings, they often fall short in their representation of diverse cultures and can resort to stereotypical depictions. This can also lead to perpetuating the notion of otherness, portraying certain nations as hostile and foreign to an assumed Western reader, or falling into Orientalist tropes.
In this blog, we will try to show how the real history of the Middle East and North Africa can help us create better fantasy worlds. We will not surprise you, but there is more to the region than sand, camels, and caravans.
The history of this region of the world is one of the longest and most complex tales that can be told. Great civilizations rose and fell, starting in early Bronze Age with the greatness of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, then in the Antiquity with Assyria and the Persian empires. There, people thousands of years apart from us lived surrounded by ruins and vestiges of bygone ages, their world already old despite them living so deep in our collective past.
The Middle Ages are most influential in LARP, and when it is about medieval times and the regions of North Africa and the Middle East, it is all about the great Arab conquests, the flourishing early empires of the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, and the following Mamluks and Ottomans.
For centuries, the Muslim world was richer, more organized, better educated, more tolerant, and had access to better technology and medicine than medieval Europe, making the so-called Dark Ages a Golden Age for Islamic society. Trade routes moved goods and ideas with equal efficiency, and Islamic scholars from Spanish Andalusia to Baghdad discussed science, faith, and philosophy, while preserving and studying the same texts that would later inspire the Renaissance. The law also left more room for religious diversity, born from the necessity of ruling a multi-ethnic empire. This in result provided plenty of opportunities for cultural exchange.
Despite the cultural significance of the Crusades, even at its height, the conflict was never more than a local problem contained to the Levant, limited in importance compared to the internal strike and other threats that would arise in the vast territory of the Islamic empire.
❧ Characters and Costumes
A few archetypes inspired by the Middle East and the Muslim world immediately come to mind in the context of LARP. Traders, merchants, and caravan guides are evocative concepts often associated with Berber or Arab aesthetics, with long flowing clothes and head scarves to protect from the sun and wind. However, this theme might be a bit over-represented.
Less often acknowledged in LARP are elite slave soldiers trained since childhood. A fixture of many Islamic armies, they were so effective and respected they often took power into their own hands through the history of the Middle East. We do not see much curved swords, lamellar armors, and that kind of Eastern battle gear in live play, and these warrior types are the perfect opportunity to bring different equipment to the field.
Scholars, alchemists, and physicians of Arab or Persian inspiration are also a often untouched theme in LARP, but are full of potential, with access to ancient knowledge and remedies from remote civilizations, both in terms of time and geography. They can also wear some of the most intricate and properly gorgeous clothes from the region, with expensive fabrics and complex finish, as they are characters of higher education and social status.
Classic LARP themes such as priests, thieves, nobles, or sorcerers can also be adapted to bring to live some inspiration from the Middle East and North Africa. Like many historical themes, it can suit any character type with a bit of research to create a compelling backstory and find the right clothes and gear. Swapping a bollocks dagger for a khanjar knife isn't enough, but enough of these little changes can really sell a character inspired by the Muslim world.