The Uncaged Sky by British-Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert is an enthralling account of her arrest, accused of espionage, at Tehran Airport in September 2018 and of enduring 804 days in an Iranian prison.
Cut-off from the outside world, and written with extraordinary recall of events, that she survived was due to her realisation that the only way to remain sane was to disassociate herself from the situation.
Kept mainly in solitary confinement in a small, windowless cell, her bed a pile of hairy blankets, she was forced to wear a blindfold when marched out for interminable questioning by her captors, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
A Jewish husband (who meanly offered her no support) and several visits to the hated Zionist state made her especially suspect of spying.
Published in March 2022, The Uncaged Sky is an absorbing first person experience among earlier books written by other victims of fate and misadventure (Death and Ten Years by Roger Cooper detained for five years while on a business trip to Iran in 1985 being significant).
This said, I would have liked to have learned a few details of Dr Moore-Gilbert’s life before her arrest. And something of her reintegration into society since returning to Melbourne (albeit likely due to her writing full pelt to get her experiences down).
And it is evident that while a specialist in Islamic studies with local contacts, she greatly miscalculated the risks associated with travelling between sensitive parts of the Middle East.
What she was doing in Bahrain is only explained as a vague reference to researching the rights of its majority Shi’a population, the subject of her thesis. In which case it surprises she was not apprehended by local authorities who live in terror of Iranian designs on their island kingdom ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa family and closely monitored by Saudi Arabia.
Did she have a government invitation to attend the Islamic conference in the holy Shi’a city of Qum? If so, it is odd she was arrested although sudden reverses are not uncommon in this ever fluid part of the world as I have discovered.
Largely due to the constant interrogations, The Uncaged Sky is a trifle repetitive up to page 80 after which it takes on a life of its own as we meet other detainees in the infamous Evin and Qarchak prisons where she was held: the book is dedicated to her best friends Niloufar Bayani and Sepideh Kashani with whom she communicated via messages hidden in pot plants.
About halfway through the almost 500 pages, somewhat astonishingly we learn that Qazi Zadeh, the official responsible for Dr Moore-Gilbert’s case became infatuated by her. Her multiple hunger strikes and attempt at escape were brave and defiant so if not for her attractive looks, it is possible he could not help falling for the gutsy prisoner from Down Under.
Hopefully writing The Uncaged Sky has acted as a sort of exorcism for Dr Moore-Gilbert and that this grim episode in her life, she is now 36, will eventually start to fade.
Her experiences are also a warning to travellers, academic or simple adventurers, not to depart our halcyon shores for dubious destinations without being cognizant of potholes on the road ahead.
Finally, while well edited, The Uncaged Sky has one conspicuous error.
On page 189, referring to the dreaded Iranian Judge Salavati, Dr Moore-Gilbert describes a prisoner convicted of corruption, of being sentenced to death: “…he was hung by the regime on 12 December 2020.”
Curtains are hung, people are hanged.
The Uncaged Sky is published by Ultimo Press, 2022.