Earlier this week, curator Christine Tohmé was told by Lebanese authorities that her passport renewal had been “suspended” due to a warrant against her. The worrying news comes at a time when other cultural workers and arts organizations in neighboring countries have also been facing governmental problems and obstacles. Tohmé believes the issue is symptomatic of a new wave of crackdowns across the region.
One of the most prominent figures in Beirut’s art scene, Tohmé is the founding director of the Lebanese Association for Plastic Arts, Ashkal Alwan. Her work has inspired a whole generation of arts organizations in the region and she is slated to be the curator of Sharjah Biennial 13, which opens in March 2017.
“I went to renew my passport and they told me there is a warrant against you, it’s not a legal one, but an arbitrary one, and I didn’t know on which accusation or standing. They asked me to go file a complaint, so I filed a complaint. Then I asked the person responsible and they said it was obviously related to my work and what I do in my practice. Usually the strategy is to not to tell you anything,” Tohmé told Hyperallergic over Skype. “I’m not the first one, and won’t be the last one. Many people are coming out the woodwork and telling me about similar problems [they’ve had]. Often we don’t hear about it, but many people have undergone the same thing.”
The issue appears to stem from a 2014 warrant that never entered the courts. “This 2014 warrant that was filed against me was decided by the Interior Ministry at the time [as something] that should be cancelled, and it was cancelled. They obviously resurfaced it and they are going against the Ministry’s judgment,” she said.
Ashkal Alwan has made a name for itself as one of the most independent and radical voices in the Lebanese and regional art scenes. Its work crosses sectarian, political, and other boundaries that often limit cultural dialogue in the country.
Never one to stay silent, Tohmé took to Facebook soon after hearing the news. She explained in a post dated Thursday, January 21: “Using warrants illegally for obstruction of administrative procedures, such as passports renewal, strips people of their right to mobility and travel. This is an illegal penalty issued by an administrative authority, not a judiciary one.”
Tohmé is adamant about fighting for her rights and ensuring that people in Lebanon can retain their hard-won freedoms. “We want this country to be different and to preserve people’s rights to speak out,” she said. “This was an arbitrary decision to terrorize people and to tell them we know what you’re doing and we’re observing you. Look what’s happening in Egypt with the arts center shut down … look what is happening with academics in Turkey … so this is another kind of strike toward a certain kind of inclination towards a type of politics. This is a new war.”
She believes any organization that discusses foreign workers, domestic abuse, or politics can easily become the victim of governmental harassment.
The Lebanese Interior Ministry has told Tohmé that it hopes to provide her with her passport as early as Saturday, January 23.
UPDATE: January 25, 1:00pm EST: Christian Tohmé has informed us that she did receive her passport.