Book Review: The Uncaged Sky: My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison
Borne out of her gruelling experience of living in Iranian prisons for two years comes a compelling memoir where Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert reminds us of the human faces behind the hostage diplomacy frequently practiced by the Iranian state.
In 2018, a name hitherto unknown to the public in Australia suddenly began making headlines. Australians were taken aback when one of their own, a well-respected academic was put behind bars by the Iranian government on charges of espionage. As the government kept the progression of diplomatic negotiations close to its chest, Australians relied on oblique news reports with differing accounts of the academic’s welfare. Then, on a sunny morning in November 2020, Dr Moore-Gilbert touched down on Australian soil after 804 days in Iranian prison, in an apparent prisoner exchange brokered by Indonesia.
Dr Moore-Gilbert accounts for her state in the prison in her own words. The Uncaged Sky spans just over 400 pages and covers the academic’s life just before, during, and immediately after her imprisonment. The book starts with Moore-Gilbert’s imprisonment in a Tehran airport, sans warning. She then recounts the people she met in the preceding days and the hastened manner in which she was accused and imprisoned of charges she did not understand, in a language she was not proficient in. The first three chapters describe Moore-Gilbert’s solitary confinement at Evin Prison and her later abrupt transfer to Gharchak Women’s Prison, before ultimately returning to Australia with the aid of diplomatic negotiations.
The book is a story of survival. Moore-Gilbert attempts to make the best of a situation she was unwillingly thrust in. Even when put in solitary confinement, she finds ways of meeting people. She makes the acquaintance of fellow political prisoners, Niloufar Bayani and Sepideg Kashsni, going against orders and standing on latrines to be able to talk to her friends. Her compassion and friendliness often become a weakness, as Moore-Gilbert describes the various times when people she assumed to be confidants turned out to be informants. It is a sordid tale of an ordinary citizen having to watch their back constantly. Moore-Gilbert, however, endures, watches, observes and learns. She describes instances where, after facing yet another session in the kangaroo courts of Iran, she returned to her cell and danced with her mates, sharing her meagre wealth of fruits in a sad rendition of a feast.
The academic in Dr Moore-Gilbert shines throughout the book. Even in prison, her thirst for knowledge is insatiable. She seeks out intellectual conversations, even when she knows her opinions may land her in trouble. She documents her conversations with fellow prisoners, learning of their lived experiences and comparing these instances to what she knew of the country before her imprisonment. She recounts watching religious proceedings and festivals with a keen eye, her appreciation for the culture growing in tandem with her distrust over the state institutions. She expresses frustration over the conspiracy theories touted by state officials. She negotiates to get access to books, volunteers to teach fellow prisoners, and gives herself agency by learning the language of her captors. The book is interspersed with pictures. Most notably, there are cartoons that Dr Moore-Gilbert herself etched. The drawings speak of escapism and a need to document her experience, like a true academic.
The book also speaks to the dehumanisation of prisoners. In a particularly heart wrenching episode, Dr Moore-Gilbert describes feeling overwhelmed by the outside world after having spent months living in solitary confinement. With Iran facing rising tariffs under the Trump administration and the prisons sweltering after the 2019 protests over rising prices, Dr Moore-Gilbert narrates the bleak conditions in the prison. After moving to the Gharchak prison, her account becomes more depressing, with repeated instances of innocent young mothers being imprisoned on false charges. Reflecting on her own experience, Moore-Gilbert writes that she had to distance herself from her identity as an Australian, as an academic, as a person with a family awaiting their return in order to continue living the monotonous life of a convicted criminal.
Dr Moore-Gilbert insists that she is not the exception. That she is, in many ways, protected by her status as a foreigner. She speaks sympathetically not only about her fellow prisoners, but prison officials as well. She talks about the compassion that hides underneath the façade of a loyal servant to a draconian state. Indeed, in the epilogue, she states that Iran itself is “an open-air prison of 84 million people.” This is perhaps the greatest strength of the book, that Dr Moore-Gilbert does not seek people’s veneration by recounting her story. Instead, she wants people to think about, and advocate for others stuck in Iranian prisons. Even in her last moments in Iranian airspace, she reflects on the other prisons that impacted her life in the past two years.
Hostage diplomacy is a tool frequently used by Iran. The Center for Human Rights in Iran provides a catalogue of dual nationals currently and previously imprisoned in Iran. Many of them, like Dr Moore-Gilbert, visited the country for personal or professional reasons and were subsequently imprisoned on charges of espionage. Due to their nationality, their cases are documented. There are, however, no such catalogues for Iranian citizens unfairly imprisoned by their own government. Moore-Gilbert provides a firsthand account of the unjust justice system in Iran, where people are treated as guilty even before their sentence is finalised. There are also testimonies of physical abuse, sexual intimidation, and a general lack of sanitation and wellbeing in these prisons.
The Uncaged Sky offers a rare insight into an infamous system many of us will have the fortune of never confronting personally. The book provides a criticism of the farcical justice system in Iran. It showcases how the leadership in the country turns viciously against its own people at the slightest hint of treason. Through second-hand recollection, Moore-Gilbert shows us that women often bear the worst brunt of the unfair system in the country, with many spending lengthy sentences because of crimes their spouses committed. She insists, even after her horrid experience, that the culture and the people are not the same as the state. This is a book that appeals not just to those who study the Middle East, but to the wider Australian population in general.
This is a review of Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, The Uncaged Sky: My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison (Ultimo Press, 2022) ISBN 9781761150401
Arushi Ganguly is a graduate of Australian National University where she studied Masters of International Relations. She specialises in feminist international relations and critical security studies. She works for the National Office of AIIA as an assistant commissioning editor.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.