Whose Cultural History Will Be In Assassin’s Creed Mirage?

As an Arabic-speaking gamer and History PhD student, I was delighted to see that Ubisoft is releasing an Assassin’s Creed game set in 9th century Baghdad – Assassin’s Creed Mirage. The Assassin's Creed series stands out compared to some popular games that whitewash empire, contemporary warfare, and historical settler-colonialism. Instead, Assassin’s Creed is known for depicting history from the ground up. Knowing the critical acclaim that was given to Assassin’s Creed Origins’ and Valhalla's ultra detailed exploration of premodern life, I wonder how Mirage will depict the cultural history of everyday people in 9th century Baghdad?

The first stunning shot of the trailer for Mirage exposes us to the beautiful landscape and architecture of a fictionalized Baghdad. In it, we can see the famous ‘circular’ city plan seen in medieval historical drawings of the city, and we can also see the large Umayyad and Abbasid-style buildings of Baghdad. But since architectural history tends to focus on ‘great’ buildings, rather than the homes of everyday people, I’d love to see literary history used to reconstruct working class families living in mud-brick apartments, Bedouins constructing temporary tents, and merchants complaining about rising rent for stone-built inns. I am also curious to see if we will be exposed to the beautiful era-specific paintings, ceramics, and textiles of Baghdad, especially since textiles were often made by female artisans who contributed to the visual identity of the city.

How will Assassin’s Creed Mirage depict the racial diversity of ninth-century Baghdad, the center of a rapidly expanding empire much like that of the Romans before it? The Assassin's Creed series is better than many American textbooks at depicting the racial fluidities and shifting discriminatory histories of the past, having personally taught me about the French Code Noir after six years of higher education did not. So I'm excited to hear hints that Mirage might see us meeting members of the future Zanj Rebellion against the Abbasids. Most commonly understood as a rebellion against the khalifa by Black enslaved men working in harsh plantations in the southern marshes, the Zanj Rebellion encompassed people of many different colors and backgrounds rising up against a center of power that decried them as "just Black slaves". Will we meet characters in Baghdad who show us how unrest was brewing in their daily lives in places like Basra?

Like many Arabic-speakers, I was delighted to learn that Assassin’s Creed Mirage will be available fully dubbed in Arabic. As a player, it made sense that voice actors we hear in the trailer use formal modern Arabic – this is the dialect most voice actors are trained in and it is commonly used in Arabic-language series set in the medieval Arabic-speaking world. But as a historian, I would love it if the game illustrated a difference between the formal Arabic used in literary situations, and the Baghdad dialect spoken by locals on the street. I would have been charmed to hear contemporary Iraqi Arabic spoken on the streets in Mirage. Ninth-century Abbasid Baghdad was a famously rich time period for Arabic poetry, and so I’m excited to see if poetic repartee features as a mini-game in Mirage as it did inValhalla. After all, how could you turn down the opportunity to have characters poke fun at each other with period-era jokes drawn from al-Jahiz’s “Book of Misers” or Abu Nuwas’s sarcastic poems?

Watching the trailer for Mirage, I was also struck by the clothing of the characters that we run into in fictionalized Baghdad. All too often, video games devote no research to period-specific clothing for medieval Arab characters, throwing together a generic ahistorical "Oriental" hodgepodge of Damascene armor, contemporary headscarf styles, and Safavid colors no matter the time period. While taking creative liberties is needed for any video game, I’m hoping that the art designers of AC:Mirage took into account studies of court clothing under the Abbasids as well as the textiles worn and woven by the working classes. We could see local men in short dusty izars look out for when the famous black turbans of the Abbasid men at court come into view – perhaps notice the simple tight woolen sleeves of a servant next to the embroidered poetry on the sleeves of a wealthy woman – and see for ourselves how Jewish Arab denizens of Baghdad wore honey-colored clothes under the stricter laws of the khalifa al-Mutawakkil.

Speaking of wealthy women – who is the woman we see in the trailer for Mirage, and will we see more like her? It would be a shame to see a largely male game after the switchable gender of Eivor in AC: Valhalla. After all, despite the lack of female chroniclers of Abbasid Baghdad, we have many biographies of notable women from the time period. Will we be summoned to perform a quest for one of the highly cloistered wealthy women of elite Baghdad, such as the Khalifa’s mother Shuja', who was known for using her money and influence to found a hospital in the city? Will there be sights of pious women embarking on the Hajj pilgrimage on the former queen Zubayda’s route? Will we engage in secret intrigue with one of the famous enslaved poet-courtesans like Mahbuba, who pioneered the musical tradition of the Abbasid dynasty and were deeply entangled in the khalifa al-Mutawakil’s court politics? Or will we shop from the working class spinsters and Bedouin herder-women whose labor was crucial to the economy of the city of Baghdad?

I’m excited to see how AC: Mirage uses archaeology, written texts, and poetry to reconstruct a fictionalized version of ninth-century Baghdad from the bottom up. TheGamer’s own Justin Reeve, himself an archaeologist, has argued that Mirage will be inaccurate to daily life in ninth century Iraq due to historians' dependence on written chronicles which value the perspective of the elites. But this assumes that we cannot ‘know’ classical history without archaeology, and assumes there is no thriving practice of reading historical texts ‘against the grain’ to learn to hear the voices of women, the enslaved, the working class, and the rebellious in early Abbasid history. In our search for ‘historical accuracy’ in games, it is important to not understate the importance of oral and written histories. After all, the detailed Nordic history found in Valhalla was not solely based on archaeology, but on the oral mythology of the Vikings as relayed through Christian converts of later centuries. Similarly, I’m looking forward to how we will see the expertise of contemporary Iraqi art historians, archaeologists, and literary scholars when reconstructing the lives of everyday people in Mirage.

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