The NWoD game “Geist: The Sin-Eaters” is a difficult game to summarize. It’s essentially a game of ordinary people who almost die, make a bargain with a “geist,” (a type of spirit or force of nature) and return to life with supernatural powers. However, in exchange for this second chance at life, they are permanently bound to this “geist” for better or for worse, for pretty much the rest of their lives. My last character, Lucy, committed suicide because she just couldn’t deal with the situation and I wanted to create a more emotionally stable character this time. I also wanted a character who was different from Lucy, yet still challenging. I like developing characters that I can learn from as well as enjoy in the course of play and story development.
Last spring, I created Yasna Osmani, a Pakistani-American Muslim who came to the US when she was two years old. Her father died when she was 8. Yasna recently survived brain cancer by agreeing to be bound to a child Geist that herself died from a deadly illness in the early 20th century.
My views of Islam have changed radically since I started playing this character. If anything, I think it takes tremendous courage to be Muslim in the United States, despite our self-perception of tolerance. As I prepared for this character, I had no idea how my ideas would change, particularly in wearing Muslim dress and in deciding in front of whom I was comfortable wearing Muslim dress.
Even though Yasna is a Muslim, I find that I subconsciously created a character very similar to me. I was raised a Portuguese-American Catholic in the Central Valley of California. It’s a pretty conservative Catholicism, about a step removed from Rome and Ireland, if even that. I became a liberal Catholic in my late teens and an atheist in my 30s. Now, I’ve slowly re-approached organized religion from the very liberal Congregationalist angle. Yasna was raised in a conservative religious household as well, but finds herself challenging the strictness of some of those beliefs.
Yasna has a mother with whom she has some serious issues. Her mother wants her to stay at home and take care of her. My mother certainly never wanted me to leave home either. Yasna is an only child and I’m an only child as well. She is fighting her way to pursue higher education which is something her family never wanted. I had to fight to leave home and go to college rather than staying home after high school.
I play Geist as a LARP (live-action role-playing game). I decided that I wanted to have the full experience of playing my character so my costuming involves the headscarf and modest American dress (long sleeves and long dresses or loose-fitting clothing). I’m very lucky because I am ethnically Portuguese, dark-haired and olive-skinned. While not a prerequisite, it helps me to get into character and, hopefully, makes me a bit more believable for my fellow players.
Does dressing like a Muslim woman in the United States make a difference in my role-playing? Absolutely. Why? Because it makes me visible. It’s easy to say “I’m a Muslim,” but to look like one is very different. It emphasizes the role that I am playing every time I play it. And this is great if I am with players that do not have an issue with that, but I have found that I hesitate when new players or new faces appear because I don’t know who they are or what their beliefs are.
For a long time, especially during my atheist phase, I had an extremely negative view of most religions. Like many Americans after the September 11 attacks, I had a particularly negative view of Islam. One rarely hears anything positive about Islam, between the violence and misogyny in some Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that regularly appear on American news. I’ve known very few Muslims as well and, sadly, this lack of social contact reflects the experience of many Americans.
So, why would I choose to create this particular character?
I chose to create this character for the very reasons stated above. I don’t know much about Islam or the Muslim world. I live in a country where we have an increasing Muslim population and a city where Muslims are very common (two women wearing hijabs work at the Starbucks of all places and I see more and more working at my own place of employment) and it is one of the three major monotheistic religions. I have heard estimates of 1 billion Muslims in the world now.
But I also have to admit that I was also inspired by something rather silly….the Canadian show Little Mosque on the Prairie. I thought it showed Muslims as very ordinary people, while still being Muslim. It was a comedy and, I thought, very funny. It humanized Muslims and, particularly, Muslim females. One of the main Muslim female characters owned her own restaurant while another one was a doctor.
I admit I started my research by trying to read the Qur’an, but was told by a friend who had served as a diplomat in Pakistan that I wouldn’t learn much about actual Muslim culture through the Qur’an alone. So I’ve been reading other books by conservatives, liberals, Muslims and non-Muslims. I started watching Al-Jazeera with my husband (a long-time viewer). I’ve noticed Muslim women around me. How they act, how they dress, etc.
Oddly enough, the greatest challenge thus far though has been trying to reconcile Yasna’s religious beliefs with her life as a Sin-Eater. My husband plays a Catholic priest in the game (and, no, there isn’t a Jewish character so no jokes!) Our characters are both, of course, religious, but he is a Jesuit and she is a University student. Neither is a fundamentalist or a literalist, and yet we are struggling on developing the concept of our krewe ( a “krewe” is essentially a street gang of Sin-Eaters, but when you form one, you get benefits…..long story.) We need to more or less agree on a mythology of life, death, the Underworld, and ghosts. We need to agree on what each of our Geists actually is and what it stands for. We need to also develop an ethos, what we will and will not do. It’s hard, even for two people who are married outside of the game!
And I’m aware that there are some people who would have issues with the choice I’ve made and not want to play with me. This has been the biggest eye-opener for me. I was privy to a conversation once prior to creating Yasna and in-between games. A psy ops army officer bound for a second trip to Afghanistan was triggered by a statement I made, as just plain old Anna, that I didn’t want to occupy Iran. He became quite….animated. He started circling the table, discussing his experience in Iraq, how Arabs were a blade culture, how he had seen someone being skinned alive for being an interpreter, how the only way to defeat these people is to take them over and remake them in our own image. A Desert Storm and a couple of Bosnia veterans joined in and no one spoke in my defense. Sadly, I felt targeted for being a) a woman voicing an opinion and b) being a liberal. And, remember, this was before I even conceived of my character Yasna. It left me pretty rattled.
My foreign diplomat friend and a psychologist friend both counseled me to avoid this individual, as he may have seen one too many tours of duty. He’s gone for now, but other military types remain. Now, I make sure that I yank off the headscarf before anyone from this subsequent game appears.
I also worry because Geist may not continue for much longer in our club. If it does, it will be combined into a cross-venue with werewolves, vampires, etc. This could lead to interaction with particular military veterans and aficionados. It worries me to appear as a Muslim woman in front of these people I’m sorry to say. So, I think the end of Yasna may be very near. It is unfortunate, but it’s made me aware of what a long way we have to go as a country if I find myself intimated during nothing more than a role-playing game.
I do believe though that I have at least tried to do her justice by playing her responsibly and respectfully. She is and will always be one of my favorite characters. Essentially, one can portray any ethnic or religious group for what they fundamentally are. And that is a human being.