Fiona Katherine Smith

PhD student
Institute for Asian and African Studies
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Unter den Linden
10099 Berlin

De:link//Re:link Project:

Cultural Infrastructures of Development and Heritage: Translocal Muslim Responses to the BRI in Central Asia

Fiona Smith

Research Interests

Project Description

The PhD project ‘Experiencing Borders: Critical Geographies of Heritage and Infrastructure in the Pamir’ investigates how people in the Pamir remember and respond to border changes in terms of infrastructure and cultural heritage. A transborder mountain range, the Pamir covers parts of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, and has seen much geopolitical change in recent history. What was once a key transit zone along the Silk Road, the Pamir has been cut-up by various political agreements made by the British and Russian empires, the Soviet Union, and more recently the People’s Republic of China. People living in the Pamir have consequently been subjected to stark changes related to these agreements, being separated from relatives and trading ties by the introduction and/or redefinition of national borders and citizenship. For the people living in the Pamir, many of whom describe themselves as Pamiri (Pāmirī) and follow the teachings of Ismaili religious leader Aga Khan IV, there is still a connection with others living in the area which transcends national borders and is strongly based on a shared cultural heritage, religion, and language(s). The Aga Khan Development Network, as a key NGO active in the Pamir, is one facilitator of transborder connectivity through various development projects including bridge-building between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and cultural exchanges and mobility programmes for young Ismailis. Additionally, due to recent events in Afghanistan, many from the Afghanistani part of the Pamir have migrated to Tajikistan as refugees and settled in Khorog and Dushanbe, which provides another point of connection transcending national borders. Working with a combination of critical geography and oral history in Dushanbe, Khorog, and other potential sites around the Pamir, the planned dissertational project poses the following questions: how do people remember and respond to changes of political borders and boundaries in the Pamir? How is the area of Pamir imagined by those living there? What role do infrastructural development projects from the AKDN play in the conceptualisation and imagination of Pamir as a geographical, political, and cultural area? What role does shared cultural heritage play in the experiences of Afghanistani refugees from the Pamir as they connect with other Pamiris in Tajikistan?


I completed my studies in B.A. Area Studies (Asia/Africa) and M.A. Central Asian Studies at the Institute for Asian and African Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where I also worked as a student assistant and tutor in the Transregional Central Asian Studies Department. Since graduating in 2021, I have been a doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Asian and African Studies in the De:Link//Re:Link project. Parallel to this, I have led several student research projects which looked at topics relating to cultural heritage, racism and discrimination, and visual culture through an anthropological lens. Outside of academia, I a member of the directory board for Angoor Visuals, a storytelling agency based in Herat, Afghanistan, which works closely with local photojournalists and graphic designers to produce media content relating to Afghanistan.

Selected Publications