The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why ‘Squid Game’ reminds me of my years in a Syrian prison

Left, Omar Alshogre, 25, is photographed in D.C. on Feb. 12. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post) Right, Alshogre in Damascus shortly after his release from prison in 2015. (Omar Alshogre) (From left: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post; Omar Alshogre)
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Omar Alshogre is a Syrian refugee, public speaker and human rights activist.

A lot of people I know have been watching the Netflix show “Squid Game,” the dystopian drama in which players participate in surreal versions of traditional Korean children’s games. The losers are punished by death — until only one is left alive.

My friends see “Squid Game” as a kind of horror movie, a grotesque commentary on the gap between rich and poor in today’s capitalist societies. To them, it’s a fantasy, a frightening fable.

But I’m fascinated by it for different reasons. To me it’s a reminder of the three years I spent in Syrian prisons. I’ve been watching it — often an extremely painful experience — to see if the show could help me make sense of what I’ve lived through.

The whole show, which details a world of capricious brutality, has exposed me to some intense emotions. But it’s episode six, “Gganbu,” that hits the hardest. That’s the one where the story puts its characters through their most savage tests yet, pitting friends and allies against each other.

When the players are asked to choose partners, their first instinct is to choose their favorite person. They don’t know they will come to regret it later. When the game’s rules are announced, the players learn the harsh truth: The two partners are competing against each other, and whoever loses the game will be “eliminated.”

Inside Syria’s infamous Sednaya prison, I lived through the real-life version of this episode. The guards came to the cells and asked my friend Jihan to name his closest friend among the inmates. I was surprised he didn’t give them my name. After all, I had been his friend there longer than anyone else.

Instead Jihan named another friend of ours. Then the guard handed him a screwdriver and told him in a calm voice, “Use this to kill your friend or he will have to kill you. You’ve got ten minutes.”

The guard locked the cell and walked away. The friend immediately began pleading with Jihan: “If you kill me, my kid is going to be an orphan.”

But Jihan didn’t see any way out. He knew that his loved ones would suffer from his death. As the final seconds ticked away, he made the decision to kill his friend and carry the guilt that would live with him forever. This was one of the scariest moments of my life in prison. I watched one of my friends kill another one right in front of my eyes. Watching “Squid Game” brought it all back.

Later in episode six, the plot twist involving the two young female characters, Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong, took me back to another moment I experienced. In the episode, Ji-yeong decides to sacrifice her life by letting Sae-byeok win. She believes that Sae-byeok has a better future and a better life waiting for her after the game, so she allows her to win.

Watching Ji-yeong reminded me powerfully of my cousin Bashir, who spent months in prison with us. Unlike Ji-yeong, he was never put in a position to sacrifice himself directly — but I firmly believe that he would have taken that chance had it been given to him. Instead, he did the same thing indirectly, by giving others the strength to survive. Even though he was starving like everyone else, he shared his food with those weaker than him. And like Ji-yeong, he somehow managed to keep smiling despite the horrors the prison was putting him through. I remember him always sitting with his arms crossed under his chin, smiling at every prisoner. He used his smile to help us hold on to our humanity.

He constantly told me about the bright future that was waiting for me outside of prison, doing everything he could to give me a reason to go on living. On March 3, 2014, Bashir died in my arms. As he was dying, he looked at me and spoke the phrase “one hundred flowers” — a symbolic gift of the purest love and forgiveness. For me, those words in Arabic — mit warde — have since become a synonym for goodness and positivity even amid the presence of great evil.

While watching this scene of “Squid Game,” I didn’t see Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong. I saw me and Bashir as he passed away in my arms.

In “Squid Game,” the honorable police officer searching for his missing brother risks everything to put a stop to this machinery of death. Incredibly enough, he, too, has real-life equivalents — like the defector known as “Caesar,” who worked in one of the Syrian government’s prisons and ultimately managed to smuggle out thousands of photos of the victims.

Today, the “Squid Game” of the Assad regime continues with impunity while dwarfing the level of sadism and criminality that we see on the show. The show often depicts characters who rebel against the inhumanity they’re subjected to. That offers a bit of relief to viewers, whose first instinct is to wonder how such savagery can go unpunished.

And yet, in the real world, there are many people who are perfectly fine with normalizing the Syrian regime, which is responsible for torturing countless people to death. All I can say is that life really sometimes is stranger than fiction.