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National Geographic runs feature and photo essay on Dubai's Guest Workers

On January 15, 2014

A report on Dubai's guest workers in this month's National Geographic explores the lives of the city-state's diverse population of migrants. Journalist Cynthia Gorney and photographer Jonas Bendiksen's piece asks a simple question: what do Dubai's migrant workers do, and what have they left behind in order to come here?

The story focuses on a married couple from the Philippines, Luis and Theresa, who are unusual in that they have been able to remain together - unlike many of their compatriots who end up living thousands of miles apart. Themes such as the challenge of providing for family in the Philippines against a backdrop of persistent poverty, the predicament of children left behind while parents migrate and the difficulties of maintaining a marriage when migration pulls spouses in different directions are all handled sensitively.

The article is rich with details about Philippine culture; the reader learns that there is a Tagalog phrase 'katas ng Saudi', which means 'juice squeezed from Saudi - also the title of a 2007 film about the travails of a Filipino returning from Saudi Arabia. Theresa is eager to play the writer a popular Tagalog song, Napakasakit Kuya Eddie, about remittance men:

“I’ll translate,” Teresa said. Music swelled. The lyrics scrolled. “I’m here in the middle of Arab country and working so hard,” Teresa said, as Cortez’s rich voice rose. “In the very hot place … the hand will become hard, and your color become dark.”

She was absorbed, singing and translating, working to catch up in English. “When he sleeps, he is always thinking to become past the time, so that he can go back home,” she said. “And he’s so glad that his son write him a letter, but he become shocked, and his tears come out—‘Dad! You go home, and make it fast! Mommy has another man!’ ”

A photo essay by Bendiksen shows a wide range of guest workers 'on the job', in situations both banal and bizarre. Two Nepalis man the slopes of Dubai's artificial ski slope. while a recently-arrived Ghanaian works as a 'pool ambassador', wading into a swimming pool fully clothed to serve drinks to guests at five star hotel.