Curator Christine Tohme’s passport was returned to her on Sunday, January 24, four days after it was taken under circumstances she believes were politically motivated and connected to her work as director of Ashkal Alwan, a leading independent arts center in Beirut. “This is a message to others, there is a deliberate kind of assault on lawyers, journalists, and artists,” she told ARTINFO by phone from the Lebanese capital on Friday. “I was not the first one and I won’t be the last one — there were people who underwent the same circumstances.”
The Lebanese Directorate of General Security informed Tohme that her passport was being withheld on January 20 after she sought to renew the travel document, which was still valid for one year. The problem, she was told, was a murky warrant issued by Fera’ el Ma’alumat, a domestic security agency (literally, “the Information Branch”). The decision by the security agency to issue a warrant and withhold her passport was in contravention of a July 2014 ruling by the Lebanese Council of Ministers “forbidding the use of these arbitrary and political warrants and considering them null,” according to Tohme. (A January 21 article published in Arabic by the Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda confirms this, adding that Tohme’s ordeal “brings to mind the former abuses of the Lebanese General Security [agency], whose goal is to impose a law of silence.”)
“In a way I have a social responsibility to [react] to this kind of arbitrary decision,” Tohme, an internationally prominent figure who is set to curate the 13th Sharjah Biennial in 2017, said of her decision to go public with her passport denial with a January 21 statement first reported by ARTINFO. In a follow-up email sent after her passport was returned, the curator added: “I don’t know if the warrant against me is still in place as no explanation was given. Hopefully, we will have more information soon.”
Tohme said that she is in regular contact with members of the Lebanese interior and culture ministries in the course of her work as a curator and director of Ashkal Alwan, and that the issuance of a warrant against her by the security apparatus is particularly troubling as it comes without recourse. “If any of my actions violated Lebanese law, I am willing to defend myself before a court of law, in a context that is legal and clear,” she said.
In response to a detailed email query sent by ARTINFO on Tohme’s case, the Lebanese consulate in New York wrote: “[W]e kindly advise you to get in touch with Lebanese competent authorities.” The consulate did not reply to further questions asking them to name the specific authorities to whom they were deferring comment. The Lebanese embassy in Washington, DC did not respond to a request for comment.
— Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)
(Photo: Exterior view of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace, Beirut, 2011, via New Museum)