Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 13, 2022

The Uncaged Sky, My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison, by Kylie Moore-Gilbert

TBH, I didn’t plan to read this book.  I knew the story of Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s incarceration in an Iranian prison from media reports at the time, and when I saw her memoir The Uncaged Sky on display at Ulysses Bookstore, I just thought, after all this woman has been through, at least I can buy her book. Perhaps strong book sales might be interpreted as some kind of empathetic gesture.  But the next day, when I opened up the book just to browse it, I started reading.

And kept reading.  Many tasks lay neglected yesterday!

My interest started as curiosity about how Moore-Gilbert managed to stay sane through it all.  Decades ago I read Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling, (1991), his account of his four years as a hostage in Beirut, and what has stayed with me after all these years is the horror of the situation these men found themselves in; how Keenan’s friendship with fellow hostage John McCarthy sustained him; and the remarkable lack of bitterness afterwards.  I still remember how I found myself wondering about whether I had the inner resources to cope in such a situation, deprived of everything that I hold dear.

Moore-Gilbert’s answer to this is that survival depends on taking control of what can be controlled.  Her initial shock, disbelief and horror at being detained in solitary confinement for espionage in Evin Prison gave way to fighting back when she realised that the relentless interrogations and false hopes of release were never going to end. Her cooperation was having no effect.  Instead of trying to conceal her emotions, she detached from her ‘old self’ and expressed her anger and frustrations; she challenged her interrogators over their lies; and she went on hunger strikes to get improvements in her atrocious living conditions and to be allowed access to consular assistance.  In a patriarchal society and one where the Revolutionary Guard holds immense power and status, she refused to respect the men who were using her as a pawn in ‘hostage diplomacy‘.

Moore-Gilbert’s case challenges the official Australian government policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ in situations like this.  She argues that the media coverage and campaign to free her was effective, but since there is silence about what our diplomats did behind the scenes, it’s hard to know what works best in an invidious situation.  After all, there is probably no ‘best way’ to deal with regimes that have no respect for human rights and sanction the abuse of power by men who are fundamentally unreasonable.  Each case is unique.

It’s also hard to judge whether efforts to secure Moore-Gilbert’s release were compromised by her behaviour. By her own account, she was often rude, disrespectful, hostile and intransigent, making no attempt to conceal her disdain for her captors. But while some of her provocations brought much-needed improvements in the conditions of her captivity, sometimes these provocations made things worse. On more than one occasion, she was punished harshly and her captors retaliated with cruel restrictions, such as denying her phone access to her parents and worse.

Qazi Zadeh went crazy.  Every possible privilege I had gained in 2A was taken away.  My pen and paper were confiscated, I was denied the right to a shopping list and the prison guards were banned from speaking to me.  In Iran saving face is everything, and my behaviour had been affront to his pride from every possible angle. (p.290)

After several days enduring this punishment, I started to regret my drastic actions in humiliating Qadi Zadeh.  He was most certainly a dangerous enemy to have, and my rejection of him had been reckless.  Surely there were other, more sophisticated ways to communicate to him that I wanted to end things?  I had let my anger run away with me, and in doing so had dramatically shot myself in the foot.  Solitary confinement in 2A without a pen or paper and without the limited human interactions afforded to me by befriending the prison guards was unbearable, and I had no idea how much longer I would have to suffer until my circumstances yet again shifted. (p.291)

The honesty of this admission illustrates graphically that sustaining any kind of rational strategy in a situation like this, is at times beyond the capacity even of a strong woman like Moore-Gilbert. Apart from one beating, she seems not to have been physically assaulted, which she attributes to the prohibition on men touching women, but the psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement amounts to torture.  Towards the end of her imprisonment she dared them to transfer her to the notorious Qarchak prison, and that’s where they abruptly sent her. On her arbitrary return to 2A they then denied her anti-depressants and sleeping pills so that she suffered withdrawal symptoms.  But it wasn’t just that her living conditions were sometimes made worse by her insistence on doing things on her own terms, it seems possible also that it caused delays in the prisoner-swap deal being brokered. But who can know what is the best thing to do? There is no template for dealing with people who take pleasure in tormenting their victims with false promises…

The epilogue acknowledges the struggle to adjust after her release.

I spent my first few months of freedom buffeted by an array of conflicting emotions.  At times I was ecstatic, and delighted in performing even the most mundane tasks of everyday life as I reclaimed a sense of independence and autonomy. At the same time, I felt an immense guilt that while I was now free to wake up when I liked, to speak, read and write without self-censoring and to jog uninhibited through my local nature reserve, so many of my dear friends continued to live each day on repeat in Evin and Qarchak prisons.  I was confused by the two years and three months of current affairs, pop culture and technological advancement which was missing from my memories.  And I was forced to grapple with the radical way that my imprisonment had turned the fundamentals of my life upside-down.  My marriage, my career, my relationships with loved ones — nothing was left unaffected.  Yet, at the same time, the world seemed to go on much as it always had.  It sometimes felt to me as though Iran existed in a parallel universe, or that my experiences there had been little more than an especially lengthy and vivid nightmare.  (p.399)

I don’t know whether writing this book could be a cathartic experience for its author.  One can only hope that she gets all the support she needs both now and when the glare of publicity dies down.

Author: Kylie Moore-Gilbert
Title: The Uncaged Sky, My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison
Publisher: Ultimo Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781761150401, pbk., 406 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore Hampton $34.99


Responses

  1. I read The Evil Cradling back in the day and it remains one of the most profound non-fiction books I’ve ever read. This sounds like a really powerful book, too. I wonder if Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff will pen one at some point, I followed her situation closely and subscribed to her husband’s newsletter where he would update everyone on the ongoing saga for 6 years.

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    • It was chilling to read the names of women imprisoned with her, and to recognise some of them as political prisoners for whom I’d written PEN letters of protest about their unjust detention. I never received any replies of course, but I like to think that refusing to forget about these people as the authorities want us to, makes a difference.

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      • Agreed. I used to be very active member of Amnesty International at about the same time I read Evil Cradling but cancelled my membership when I went to UK. I really ought to reinstate it.

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        • I switched from Amnesty to letter-writing for Melbourne PEN, but I’m considering switching back to Amnesty…

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          • Why, Lisa? It’s so hard to know how to help best isn’t it?

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            • Uh, long story, but basically it’s because I joined PEN for the sole purpose of writing letters on behalf of imprisoned writers, and I depend on emails with the info about current campaigns in order to do it. I didn’t go to meetings, or cards-to-prisoners writing sessions, or do fundraising or #hashtag campaigns. I just paid my membership dues and did what I could with the workload that I had while still working, and I responded to every single call to action that I received. I did that as a matter of urgency no matter how tired or busy I was, because I had the great satisfaction of knowing that some of the people I helped campaign for were released, and when they were free, they said that their conditions improved once the letters started coming. Which meant that every day counted.

              But to achieve that, I need to know who’s in prison and what spurious charge there is against them, and the name and address of who to send the letter/s to, usually the head of government, minister for justice, an occasional king. And I haven’t been getting that info. I was sending 20-30 letters to recalcitrant governments each year for many years, and it’s dropped to two in 2020 and one in 2021. It’s not Covid, this info was always forwarded from International HQ to PEN Melbourne and forwarded on to members by email anyway… Covid hasn’t altered the incidence of people unjustly imprisoned by repressive governments.
              This year the only email I’ve had was about Assange, and he’s got a high profile with supporters all over the world, he doesn’t need me as well. It’s the ‘nobodies’ languishing in disgusting conditions in gaol who need someone to make a fuss about them.

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              • Thanks Lisa… good on you for doing all that. I don’t write anywhere near as many as I should. Do you know why they’ve stopped sending out that information?

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                • No idea.
                  Their Twitter account is preoccupied with Assange and Ukraine at the moment, if that’s any guide.

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                • I guess it is!

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  2. I hadn’t heard of An Evil Cradling until I read Kim’s comment above, and I’ve just looked it up and reserved it at the library here. Not the happiest topic for reading over Easter, but the times lately are not the most cheerful what with Ukraine, floods, and election campaigns. As a woman I would be terrified to travel to these areas!

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    • I share your sentiments! I have a friend who went with a study tour group to Iran and I was in a lather of anxiety about her the whole time she was there. She said it was fine, and that it was a very interesting country, but there’s no way I’d be visiting it!

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    • I’d recommend following up ‘An Evil Cradling’ with Brian Keenan’s ‘Between Extremes’

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      • Hello John, yes, thanks for the reminder. I had this one too, but hadn’t read it, and I lent it to someone who didn’t return it. It seems to be still available, at Amazon at least.
        Your comment reminds me too, that I bought this one for the same reason, that is, compensating for all that time when I knew about what was happening to these men, and couldn’t do anything about it. So the least I could do afterwards was to buy the book. It’s inane, really, and yet it’s not, because there must have been times when those men thought nobody cared and that they were forgotten, but they weren’t.

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  3. An Evil Cradling made such a huge impression on me when I read it in my late teens. As you say, I hope writing is a cathartic experience and helps in some way. It may also help keep attention on the friends she left behind in prison.

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    • She writes that she hopes it will help them to bring attention to those still imprisoned, and I like to think that it could, but I think it’s unlikely. Iran already knows that the west disapproves of it, and they don’t care.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. An Evil Cradling left a deep impression on my too, as did Some Other Rainbow by John McCarthy and his then girlfriend Jill Morell which gave tremendous insight into the campaign she led to keep his name in the public consciousness.

    It’s impossible to know whether the quiet diplomacy strategy is more effective than the visible campaign approach used by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff’s family. I suspect that the diplomacy route would be unbelievably slow

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    • Yes, and when every day is a day too long, it might help to know that your situation is in the public eye.

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  5. That’s exactly what I wonder about people in this situation: how do they hold onto their sanity? I can’t even imagine how terrifying it would be.
    I like your thought process – if she can live it and write about it, the least we can do is buy it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Naomi, and life afterwards, how does anyone adjust? To be living in a state of terror for so long, and then be released from it? I used to think that about the Holocaust survivors who lived among us when I was a teenager…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. From the interview I’ve heard with her – and now from reading your review – it’s clear that she’s an amazingly strong women. It must be so hard to know how to “play” the game (though play is a poor word in the circumstances isn’t it). Her experience is just so hard to comprehend happening.

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    • Ha ha, #TypicalLisa I had no idea that there was a publicity tour until I was talking about this book with my neighbour and she said she’d heard all about it on 60 minutes!

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