Yemen Friday prayers protests: Last (wo)man standing

In the heat of the midday sun orderly rows of coloured prayer mats stretched for the best part of a mile. What should be one of the busiest roads in Sana’a filled with people, squeezing in and around hundreds of tents currently housing around a thousand activists, permanently camping on the road in a spectacular display of people power. The Imam’s voice boomed from speakers strapped to telegraph poles. The only other sound came from the birds and small children repeating the preacher’s words.

Although the numbers – a 50,000+ ish guesstimate (it’s hard to tell when you’re on the ground) – might not be as great as other Friday prayers protests around the Ummah, with a population of just over 1.5 million in Yemen’s capital, it’s equivalent to two million people turning up in London’s Trafalgar Square for church on Sunday.

Having watched from a roof-top last week, this Friday I stayed on the ground, to mix with the increasingly diverse crowd of students, tribesmen, families, the unemployed and those fortunate enough to have a job.

After a while the men surrounding me started to nudge each other and whisper, ‘bint, bint’ (‘girl, girl’). Despite my short hair and western dress I’d been rumbled. Ushered down a side street I stood with a dozen other women and their children. Kicking off my shoes in the sandy gateway of someone’s house, amongst discarded empty water bottles and can pulls, I faced north towards Mecca, as the men on one side and women on the other bowed, knelt to the ground and touched theirs heads off the array of scarves and patterned mats in perfect unison.

Feeling conspicuous as the only one left standing a late arrival hurried to find a space and shuffled in line next to me. As he spread his undersized carpet on the last visible piece of tarmac in front of him he spotted the small camera in my hand (in order to get through the soldier’s checkpoint 200 yards down the road you have to smuggle a camera in via the back pocket of your jeans – they wont frisk a woman). Making a rectangular shape with his hands he followed with a thumbs up.

This video was the view from where I stood yesterday, near Sana’a University, the site of one of the many street encampments across Yemen all calling for an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 32-year rule in ongoing protests which began over six weeks ago and have left up to 30 dead.