Kylie Moore-Gilbert
Ultimo Press
RRP $34.99

The Uncaged Sky” will challenge your perception of yourself and test your ideas of how you would have survived years of mental and physical abuse in the face of terrible hardships.  

For Kylie Moore-Gilbert believes her language abilities as an academic of Islamic and Middle East studies saved her from going insane during her accumulative twelve months in a small isolation cell, a prisoner of the feared Iranian Revolutionary Guard during her 804 days of imprisonment.  

These are the same ruthless men responsible for the death of Muhsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman who died while in their care and which kicked off the current ongoing unrest in Iran. 

Kylie says her solitary confinement, sleeping on a concrete floor with no amenities, and her long imprisonment in Evin and Qarchak prisons turned the fundamentals of her life upside down, tested her beliefs about herself and her resilience to the edge of her endurance. Her marriage, her career, her relationships with loved ones at home who tried to support her, were all, and still are, deeply affected.  

Since her release,  she is often asked how she was able to survive for so long despite the number of hunger strikes she conducted, and the constant interrogations and threats she endured. She writes she was able to do so because the practical part of her brain was able to somehow detach itself from, and repress, her emotions.  

This process of numbing the acute pain, angst and trauma, particularly in the early months of her solitary incarceration enabled her to adapt to the cruelty and deprivation inflicted by the prison guards, both male and female.

“I became determined to live each day in the moment, to switch off my brain and focus on mundane activities like eating and sleeping, adopting a robotic existence in order to cope”, she recalls. 

In prison, she realised that this emotional disassociation became a form of power and helped her avoid the overwhelming and crippling despair she fought against when confronted with the bitter realities of being an innocent person trapped in a brutal and corrupt system.

 “I remain in awe of the human brain’s powers of adaptation and survival. I also know that language played a crucial role in my capacity to make sense of what was happening to me. I became determined to master the Farsi language, for it gave me a goal to work towards and a motivation to get up each morning. Farsi became my means of clawing back power from those guards who sought to use my linguistic limitations again me.”  She adds that her dignity was the one possession they couldn’t take away. 

“My principal interrogator wanted to recruit me, but he needed to utterly subjugate me first”, she says. “The best way to assert my dignity I knew was to refuse, while laughing, mocking and belittling him. The power to humiliate me became personal between us”. 

This behaviour was particularly important as her interrogator doubled his efforts to recruit her as a spy. “Agree you will spy for us, you are married to an Israeli, you speak Hebrew. You have studied Arabic and now Farsi, this is your one chance.” He would constantly threaten or cajole, promising to free her from her imprisonment immediately.  

“What if I agreed and once free, I ran away,” she asked. “Then we would find you and eliminate you,” he said. Kylie knew he meant it. 

Her stubborn refusal to entertain his frequent requests and her realisation that this emotional disassociation made her more open to taking risks with her captors meant she didn’t care about the consequences. It helped her adapt to the cruelty of the treatment in the 2A Women’s Wing and ignore the passage of time, punishments, lying, and the promises which never eventuated as well as the deprivations that were purposefully inflicted to punish her. 

Early in her imprisonment she remembers being grateful to a business woman called Roya who shared her cell for a short time and gave her timely advice. “This isn’t the West, Kylie jan. These men have egos; enormous fragile ones. The Revolutionary Guards are used to being feared, you can’t laugh at them. You need to be deferential. You need to stroke their egos if you want them to do anything for you.”   

“I decided as I came face to face with their pettiness and meanness that I would play along with this knowledge, weeping uncontrollably one day, raging and destroying my cell the next,” Kylie writes. 

“The Uncaged Sky“ left me wondering whether I could ever be resilient enough to sustain such mental torture and physical degradation. 

Kylie’s book is an exquisitely detailed, well written account of her confusion, suffering and of the life-saving friendships she made with a number of fellow prisoners, most of whom were Iranian, who continue to languish in Evin prison, either awaiting trial or serving long-term sentences as activists or for participating in the 2019 protests. 

Now that she is free, Kylie feels it is her duty to speak up about what happened to her and to her friends and the truth be recorded. 

“The forty-three years of Islamic Republic has plunged Iran into a crisis of human rights of unfathomable proportions, “she says. “The regime is brazenly holding foreign citizens like me, using them as pawns on the international stage, persecuting civil, political and women’s rights activists as well as members of religious minorities such as the Baha i.   

“The authorities and the religious elite are determined to maintain their grip on power at all costs and many ordinary Iranians who are wonderful, generous people, plus those who are impoverished and living on the streets through no fault of their own, are being thrown into prison in unprecedented numbers.” 

Many Iranians Kylie met told her their country has now become an open-air prison of 84 million people. 

“We who live in freedom must speak out for those who are still struggling for the everyday liberties we take for granted.” 

Kylie’s story is a horror tale, but it will make you appreciate the freedoms we enjoy in Australia.  Her book drives home how precious it is to live in a democracy, to dress as we like, go to work every day and not worry about being arrested and locked up on spurious charges without judicial protection.  

Kylie had travelled to Bahrain for research purposes and attended an academic conference in Iran to which she had been invited.  

While in prison she lived in constant fear of the death penalty until the judge, favoured by the Revolutionary Guard for his harsh verdicts, gave her a ten-year sentence.  

The verdict was crushing and took courage to walk from the court room, but Kylie Moore Gilbert has that in spades. 

Sherry Stumm

Kylie Moore Gilbert was released to the Australian Ambassador Lyndall Sachs in Iran thanks to the efforts of Nick Warner the special Australian negotiator who signed her release forms. Kylie spent a night at the Australian embassy before accompanying Nick Warner on a private jet back to Australia organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs. “It wasn’t until we left Iranian airspace that I finally believed I was free and my heart was overwhelmed with hope.”

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