Monday, May 3, 2021

(AD&D 2e)Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures

I'm going to open this post by giving an up front acknowledgement and credit to the Asian's Represent podcast, whose Critical Read of Al-Qadim I listened to before and during the reading of this book. And on the off chance that this post reads as more insightful than my usual fare, a lot of that is down to them shaking me out of my regular complacency. 

With that in mind, I have to remind myself that it's not my job to defend this book from accusations of racism. Although "accusations" is probably a bad word to use. It implies that there's some controversy here. As if the racism weren't just out in the open, in the words the book uses to describe its fantasy-Arabia setting.

I think I'm inclined to be charitable with these old books because I'm getting up there in years myself, and I remember what it was like to be ignorant. I largely gave late-90s/early-00s White Wolf a pass because I have clear memories of myself from that time period and I was no better. I don't have those same memories for 1992 (I was 10 years old), so I don't know where to put Al-Qadim in my own personal journey. I believe I got my copy in 1997 or 1998, because I still had a character sheet tucked into the pages, and my last AD&D 2e game was no later than 2001 (I converted to 3e almost instantly), and I can say that I have no strong memory of thinking this book was racist, so I've got no real moral high ground to speak of . . . although my primary interest in the book was the Sha'ir class, and I never really used the setting material . . .

No, no, let's not play the game where I try to exonerate my younger self. I probably should have noticed something off about this book, but was too sheltered in my extremely white little world to give these matters much thought. However, with the concession that young-John's attitudes contributed in their own small way to this train wreck of book, I'm actually still going to be pretty generous here. I don't think Al-Qadim is the way it is because of any particular racist intent (for all that that matters). In fact, I've been reading a lot of AD&D 2nd edition lately, and the writing of this book bears the hallmarks I've come to recognize as them REALLY TRYING.

They don't always. Spelljammer has this really weird thing about Asians, and I can't even begin to speculate as to what they were going for - a detail I neglected to mention when I was talking about The Complete Spacefarer's Handbook was some typical drive-by WTF-ery. The space religion known as The Path and the Way, which believes in an interstellar celestial bureaucracy by which the gods divide up the universe, has a "bias toward humans from Oriental cultures."

I didn't say anything at the time, because it was just one sentence fragment and seemed relatively benign, but maybe I should have because it's also extremely weird. What is it trying to imply - that there are millions of planets in the universe, but most of them have an Asia, and they're similar enough to each other that if you meet an Asian in space, you can make certain assumptions about their culture and politics? It would be one thing if the parallelism between worlds was a major setting feature, with similar cultures showing up under various aliases throughout the universe, but no other people got that sort of treatment. Only Asians. And East Asians at that.

It's strange, until you realize that AD&D was largely written by white nerds and whether they consciously knew it or not, they were adept at policing the boundaries of whiteness and so, at best, "Asian" was a genre to them. Things could fall into "normal" "western" fantasy, or they could be . . . something else. Spelljammer's weird thing about space Asians is what it looks like when they're not really trying. There's also a pretty clear example of that kind of thing in Al-Qadim - the Beggar Kit.

Including a beggar-thief class in your "Arabian Adventures" game could potentially be quite problematic, evoking Orientalist tropes of the downtrodden masses of brown people in desperate need of a White Savior, but you could make the argument that it's meant to be the opposite - that the beggar-thief, especially as a PC in an rpg game, is a roguish hero, turning the table on the aristocracy and expressing a fantasy of class-conscious agency. That the beggar-thief is, in fact, one of the classic heroic archetypes, not tied to any particular culture.

And that argument might even be persuasive. The beggar-thief is one of the classic heroic archetypes, so much so that they're also in The Complete Thief's Handbook. They're . . . already . . . in . . . The Complete Thief's Handbook . . . and they're repeated here. . . Strange, no other kit gets that treatment. What does Arabian Adventures have to say for itself?

"The Complete Thief's Handbook contains a more Western or European beggar kit, with many similarities to this one. Characters belonging to the Western kit become sa'luks (ed note: the "miscellaneous" kit) in Zakhara; they do not become beggar-thieves as described here."

And there it is. That's what not trying looks like. This is ordinary AD&D racism. Policing the boundaries of whiteness. There's already a beggar kit, but you can't just use it because you need to distinguish between special "Arabian" beggars. What's the difference? Not much, really, and I suspect the bulk of it really comes down to the extra 2e design experience gained in the years between 1989 and 1992, but the CTHB beggars get 4 bonus nonweapon proficiencies and a -2 to NPC reactions, whereas the AA beggars get 1 bonus nonweapon proficiency, the special benefit of being able to disappear into crowds, and a -4 to NPC reactions. My judgement is that the CTHB beggar is better, but probably not out of any geographical chauvinism.

However, that should not be read as an exoneration. The Arabian Adventures kit entirely failed to justify its existence, and the very fact that such a weaksauce kit was deemed necessary in the first place does indicate some problematic attitudes that might have been deniable if beggar-thieves had just been a recommended character type or if the AA beggar-thief was an acknowledged errata, meant to be back-ported into "western" (and I can't tell you how gross it feels to use that word in this context) games to nerf the absolutely overpowered 4 bonus proficiencies version of the class.

It's instructive to contrast this careless racism with the racism of the setting chapter, though, because I honestly think that the setting chapter is a novel type of well-meaning liberal racism, distinct from AD&D's regular overwhelming whiteness.

Content warning for the rest of the post. It gets into some anti-Arab stereotypes and implied sexual violence.

Let's start with the worst thing in the entire book, and possibly the worst single paragraph not written by Phil Brucato that I've encountered so far in the course of the blog:

Aside from murder, only one crime is great enough to warrant punishment by death: amorous impropriety. Contrary to popular belief among foreigners, no honorable desert warrior would ride off with his enemy's screaming wife - even in the midst of a feverish camel raid. (Such raids, incidentally, are not considered stealing.) Nor would he ride off with his enemy's unwed daughter unless a marriage were to be arranged somehow. In fact, if a desert raider were to return to his camp after committing such a crime, his brothers might strike him down on the spot - thereby sparing the family honor.
I don't even know where to begin with this, really. You really should just watch the Asians Represent stream. However, my unsolicited white guy opinion here is that if you set aside the dense tangle of Arab stereotypes (and you shouldn't), what's going on is an attempt to preemptively debunk a racist trope, but doing so with densely packed racism.

I have to acknowledge that what I'm doing looks a lot like me peering through a crystal ball to divine the thoughts of someone decades in the past and absolve them of racism, but I think this example is a pretty clear indication of why "intentions aren't magic" is a good piece of advice. I'll just come out and say directly that I think the intention of the quoted paragraph is to be anti-racist. No, really. I try my best to parse it and I think the point it's trying to get at is that Zakharans (aka "fantasy Arabs") think rape is bad.

As well they should. This should be so obvious and uncontroversial a statement that it goes without saying. So why didn't it go without saying? Why did it need to be said?

That's the first layer to all this. You identify a group and then ascribe to this group a completely anodyne moral sentiment. Regardless of how obviously true a statement you're making or how laudable a principle you're espousing, there's something vaguely insulting about the fact that you saw fit to make a statement at all. It's a basic principle of human communication that novel information, presented without context, is assumed to be relevant. I tell you "Most left-handed people believe murder is wrong," and the natural follow-up question is "what did you hear about left-handed people?"

Now, in this particular case, there's a rhetorical flourish that tells us what the relevance is. It's the clause "Contrary to popular belief among foreigners." This is something that shows up a couple of other times. When Arabian Adventures uses the word "foreigners" they're inevitably being meta. They're addressing the (presumed white) audience and saying, "this dumb thing you believe is wrong." It shows up again in the section about harems, where it explains that "a foreign lothario" might get the wrong idea. I don't want to give them too much credit here, because the alternative explanations are usually pretty insulting, but for me, at least, the meaning was loud and clear.

Primarily because of how absurd "foreigners" would be if we interpreted it literally. Do they mean "foreign to Zakhara?" as in Faerun? We in the real world hear these unflattering things about Arab culture because of deep-seated racism in Hollywood and the news, based in a long history of colonialism and religious and ethnic bigotry. So we can just dismiss unflattering Arab sterotypes as false. Where, then, is Faerun getting its information? Some guy in Shadowdale hears the "popular belief among foreigners" that Zakharan desert warriors "ride off" with their enemies' wives and daughters and who's telling him this? And why? It's not as if the Shadowdale guy is Christian and he mistrusts the Muslim Zakharans. He's not watching Fox News here. Faerun and Zakhara are barely aware of each others' existence, and wouldn't have the same "clash of civilizations" dynamic even if they were. If that kind of story is traveling halfway across the world in the absence of a global trading network, then something very much like it must have happened at least once.

This weird, backhanded validation of racist nonsense brings us to another layer of messed up here - Arabian Adventures cultivates an anthropological distance that attempts to be nonjudgemental, but winds up being both credulous and sheltered. Look back at the sentence "Nor would he ride off with his enemy's unwed daughter unless a marriage were to be arranged somehow." I think the arranged marriage is supposed to be a mitigating factor here, but if that's the case, why is he still "riding off" in this scenario? That's an odd way of saying "departs his fiance's household in order to relocate her and her possessions to their new home."

Maybe this is just the cynical crystal ball at work here. but I feel like the euphemism is a little too blatant to be anything but an affectation. "Amorous impropriety?" You mean like waiting four days between texts? Something bad is going down, but you're not saying what it is, because it's the word that's abhorrent and not the practice. "Mommy, why is that horse-man carrying away that woman?" "Oh, they're . . . getting married, child." And in that light, Arabian Adventures' cultivated tolerance is sinister. It doesn't debunk myths about Arabic culture so much as argue that the cultural context justifies practices it can't quite bring itself to endorse.

But let's talk about "rid[ing] off with his enemy's screaming wife." It's such a . . . specific thing to have not happen. So much so that it shows up again in the Horse Riding proficiency along with a new failure condition "Should, for example, a damsel happen to punch her would-be rescuer, the horesman's attempt would fail."

So . . . much . . . subtext. What circumstances are leading up to this PC horse-rider attempting to scoop up a woman onto his horse and getting a punch for his trouble?

On second thought, don't tell me. I'd rather not know. But it's such a clear image. A mounted Arabian warrior, grabbing a woman off the ground and carrying her away. I feel like I've seen something like that before. And I'm certain that the authors of Arabian Adventures have seen something like that before - to both play it straight when warning readers- ahem, foreigners, not to expect it and then, in a completely unrelated example, parody it for comedy. What movie are they referencing? 

Which brings us all the way round back to ordinary AD&D racism. "Arabian" isn't a culture, it's a genre and so the book shows you the elements you expect to see in a genre narrative, the things that are meant to distinguish it from "Western" (ugh) or "European" (ugh, but also totally wrong) fantasy. And at best that means a theme-park version of real places and cultures.

That's not even an interpretation, really. The book's introduction says nearly as much

The third Araby comes from our own culture and its Hollywood movies - films that are occasionally humorous and quite often inaccurate .  .  . These films offer a third lens through which we can view the world of the Arabian Nights. They are entertaining rather than education, but this is the Arabian fantasy world that most of us know first, through Saturday TV matinees.
Well, that's a hell of a thing to openly admit. Especially when the goal is to explain your games' conflating it with the first (actual Arab history) and second (Arabic folklore) interpretations of Arab fantasy.

I mean, I get the impulse. Usually "broader, louder, and dumber," is a good recipe for fun. Except . . . the thing with the horses wasn't very fun at all. Which is probably why they went out of their way to say it never happens. But it's not just about one image. The whole "Hollywood Arabia" genre is shot through with harmful stereotypes and because of its provenance and state goals, Arabian Adventures inherits (and thereby spreads) those same stereotypes. I really do believe that the intent is for us to respect and admire Arab culture through the lens of Zakhara, but intent alone isn't enough to make the presentation both respectful and good.

Ukss Contribution: I don't think Arabian Adventures was motivated by malice. And there are parts here that are genuinely cool. I still like the Sha'ir class quite a lot - it's a fun alternate magic system where your familiar (a cute little mini-genie) travels to another reality to beg, borrow, and steal spells on your behalf. However the rough parts of this book are really rough. It generally tries to present Zakhara as a noble civilization, but still indulges in Orientalist cruelty like cutting the hands off a thief (as if the British didn't just execute them on the gallows). And look, I'm going to be direct - the genuine anger I saw on the Asians Represent stream both surprised and moved me, so I'm just going to give this book a miss for Ukss.

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