The Uncaged Sky: My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison
Non-Fiction Award Shortlist
Title: The Uncaged Sky: My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison
Author: Kylie Moore-Gilbert
Publisher: Ultimo Press
On September 12, 2018 British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was arrested at Tehran Airport by Iran’s feared Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Convicted of espionage in a shadowy trial presided over by Iran’s most notorious judge, Dr Moore-Gilbert was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin and Qarchak prisons for 804 days, this is the full and gripping account of her harrowing ordeal. Held in a filthy solitary confinement cell for months, and subjected to relentless interrogation, Kylie was pushed to the limits of her endurance by extreme physical and psychological deprivation.
Kylie’s only lifeline was the covert friendships she made with other prisoners inside the Revolutionary Guards’ maximum-security compound where she had been ‘disappeared’, communicating in great danger through the air vents between cells, and by hiding secret letters in hava khori, the narrow outdoor balcony where she was led, blindfolded, for a solitary hour each day.
Cut off from the outside world, Kylie realised she alone had the power to change the dynamics of her incarceration. To survive, she began to fight back, adopting a strategy of resistance with her captors. Multiple hunger strikes, letters smuggled to the media, co-ordinated protests with other prisoners and a daring escape attempt led to her transfer to the isolated desert prison, Qarchak, to live among convicted criminals.
On November 25, 2020, after more than two years of struggle, Kylie was finally released in a high stakes three-nation prisoner swap deal orchestrated by the Australian government, laying bare the complex game of global politics in which she had become a valuable pawn.
Written with extraordinary insight and vivid immediacy, The Uncaged Sky is Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s remarkable story of courage and resilience, and a powerful meditation on hope, solidarity and what it means to be free.
In this gripping account of her incarceration in Iran, Moore-Gilbert brings her academic eye to the power dynamics and psychological hardships of imprisonment. The result is a memorable meditation on freedom, friendship, and the persistence of human agency in the most inhumane conditions. Moore-Gilbert has a remarkable story to tell but The Uncaged Sky is above all a remarkable piece of writing, an achievement made all the more impressive for appearing less than two years after her release. As immersive as a novel, but as precise and rigorous as a work of scholarship, The Uncaged Sky is – like the best prison literature – ultimately less about prisons than the human condition.
I stare at the wall inches in front of my face. Someone has scrawled something on it in ballpoint. The air-conditioning unit whirs noisily above my head and I shiver despite my layers of clothing. Over my shoulder, a man is making a speech in Farsi; there is aggression in his voice. He seems to be addressing me, although I have no idea what he is saying. I hear the muttering of other men, the creaking of chairs, heavy breathing. The man is shouting now, but the beat of my own heart is so loud that all his words are drowned out. A sense of panic rises in my chest, and I put my hands over my ears. I focus on what has been written on the wall, try to read the Arabic script, searching for words I can understand. Maybe whoever wrote it had sat in the same chair as me, facing the same cold, dirty tiles, overcome by the same fear and confusion.
Someone else is talking now, and gradually the words seep through the fog in my brain. I realise they are in English: ‘… the security of our nation. If you do not cooperate, we will throw you into a dark hole where nobody will find you…’
I turn my head to the left, ever so slightly. ‘Reza?’ ‘Yes,’ he mutters, pausing mid-translation.
‘Reza,’ I stammer, ‘I know you people can do anything you want to me here: you can rape me, you can torture me…’ At this I start crying uncontrollably: loud, convulsive sobs.
Somebody barks something in Farsi from behind me, and Reza fires off a few rapid sentences in response. ‘Kylie,’ he says softly, ‘nobody’s going to do those things to you – don’t worry.’
‘But who are all these men?’ I whisper. ‘What do they want from me?’
The voice starts shouting again, and Reza resumes his translation. ‘You will answer every single question we ask you, you will tell us everything you know. If you ever want to return to your country, you must cooperate. Nobody cares about you, nobody knows where you are. If we want, we can make you disappear…’
‘Reza,’ I whisper again, ‘please. I need the toilet. Please, I think I’m going to throw up.’
After a brief exchange in Farsi, a woman appears at my side. She is clad in a black chador, the loose outer garment worn by religious Iranian women that cloaks them from head to toe. ‘Cheshmband!’ someone yells, as she motions for me to get out of my chair.
‘Put your blindfold back on,’ Reza says softly.
I obey, and the woman grasps my wrist and leads me from the room. I pull my own chador tightly around me, clasping it at the throat so that it stays on my head.
We make it to the bathroom, a squalid cubicle with a filthy squatter toilet and hose. ‘T-toilet paper,’ I stammer peering at the woman from under my blindfold. ‘I need toilet paper.’
‘No paper,’ she says brusquely. ‘Hurry.’
We return to the interrogation room where the man resumes his yelling.
‘Tell us about the list of contacts you sent the university from Iran,’ Reza translates.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I cry. ‘I never sent any contact list from Iran!’
Someone moves into my field of vision: I see a swarthy face, an unkempt beard, bushy eyebrows. It is one of the men from the hotel. The mean one. He smiles, revealing black gums and stained teeth, and holds up a printed page. It is an email I sent with a list of emergency contacts should I get into trouble. It includes my academic sponsor from a Tehran university, and the names of other academics involved in the university program I took part in. Elyas Hossein’s name is there too.
‘I didn’t send that from Iran,’ I exclaim. ‘I sent it from Australia, before I left. Look at the date!’
Reza says something in Farsi, and the email is snatched away by a third person. The interrogator retreats without a word, and there is a discussion behind me. My tears start to flow once again. I try to focus on the writing on the wall, but the pounding in my ears begins to overwhelm my other senses. I need the bathroom again.
I stare at the wall of my cell, imagine that the patterns in the milky-coloured marble are faces, or animals. I see mermaids, I see schools of fish and trees and pigeons. Someone has scratched ‘EV 2018’ in Latin script into a piece of metal which runs vertically down the corner of one wall. For the millionth time I wonder who EV is, how long ago it was that she had been here. How long she spent in this windowless box. There are tally marks etched into this metal frame, and into the strip of soft plaster above the door. Twelve days, eight days, twenty-three days. There are names and dates in the Iranian calendar, in Arabic numerals. Some have been scrawled directly onto the marble tiles in blue pen. My brain rages, taking in my meagre surroundings, searching over and over again for something new, for a piece of graffiti I haven’t yet noticed, for a new stain on the carpet – anything.
I stare at the crumbling wall next to where I lie on the dusty ground. Someone had once painted it a beige colour, but now its paint is flaking, revealing pale concrete beneath. Yesterday I scratched a bird into its pockmarked surface, trying to copy the shape of the parrots which roost in the plane trees outside my cell’s boarded-up window. A guard had come out and yelled at me, motioning for me to stand up and pace around rather than lie on my back in the
dust like I do in my cell. Perhaps she had a point, however, I prefer to look upwards. To keep my gaze fixed on the sky, and the birds wheeling freely away high above me.
I glance across at my drawing – and then look again. Next to my bird someone has scrawled in English: Stay strong. You’re not alone.
My eyes dart over my shoulder, half-expecting to be caught in the act of reading this forbidden message. The faint hum of television emanates from the guards’ room, the bubble lens of its omniscient camera sinister yet silent. I scratch around in the dirt for something sharp, and among the dried leaves and clumps of earth my fingers find a small rock.
Thank you, I etch into the wall’s chalky veneer. I am Kylie from Australia.
About the author
Kylie Moore-Gilbert is a scholar of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. Kylie speaks several Middle Eastern languages and has spent significant periods travelling and conducting academic research in the region. She was falsely charged with espionage and imprisoned in Iran from September 2018 to November 2020 before being released in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government.