SANAA, Yemen — While Friday prayer services were underway at a mosque near the US Embassy compound in Sanaa Friday, officers in camouflage uniforms were at-the-ready, clutching their batons.
After protesters stormed the embassy on Thursday, authorities blocked several streets in anticipation of more riots in Yemen, which followed similar ones in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other parts of the region. As the protests continued, the Pentagon took precaution and sent 50 marines to Yemen Friday to boost security at the US embassy. The unrest erupted after a cheaply-made, obscure anti-Islam movie trailer went viral earlier this week, though most protesters admitted to not having seen the clip.
Along the Siteen highway, across town from the US Embassy, crowds gathered to offer their prayers right in the road, which has been a weekly tradition since Yemen's revolution erupted last year. But once the services ended, some worshippers marched along the road, unfurling banners in Arabic, reading, "We are here, Muhammad," and "O community of Muhammed, your prophet is insulted." Khaki-clad soldiers in red berets looked on. Women in niqab, the black face-veil, bore signs on the crown of their heads expressing solidarity with their Prophet.
A group of young men held homemade posters with proclamations written in marker. In English, one of their signs said: "This is not freedom of speech or expression! It is offense on Prophet Mohammed! It is untruth! No to lie at distortion. Prophet of Allah: Mohammed." Among those who helped draft the signs was 25-year-old Dhaafar Al-Dahmani, who along with his friends carried Syrian flags. Dressed in a stylish ivy cap, plaid shirt and jeans, the engineering student said he was upset about the film, Innocence of Muslims, for showing the Prophet in a negative light.
"I did not see it, but as I heard they made him a thief I think," Al-Dahmani said of the film. "They do not respect him and we came to show our feelings about the Prophet and continue the youth revolution that we're having."
There are a "lot of bad things that are not true" in the movie, according to Abdel Aziz Humaid, 24, who also had not watched the film. In fact, no one else in this cadre of at least a dozen men had seen the film trailer circulating on YouTube, but had heard about it through Facebook and Twitter.
Ghanem Al-Shahery, 21, said he was upset by an inaccurate image of the Prophet being portrayed. "Our message to the West is to read about the seerah," or collection of stories on the life of Muhammad. Like many others, he said even if he had the chance to see the movie in Yemen, where slow Internet connections can make it difficult to play online videos, he said he wouldn't take a peek. "They want us to watch the film, that's their goal, that's what they want — if we watch the film they will succeed," he said of those behind the film.
The youth said they were told by the leaders of various political parties that pray along the highway not to go toward the US Embassy because of the unrest that broke out on Thursday. Humaid, an information systems student who sports a light goatee, said the attacks on US embassies, including the deadly assault in Libya, were unfortunate. "It's not a Muslim act what they did," he said. "I want to express our feelings in a civilized way, without violence."
At the root, there's perplexity around the film's purpose. Fifty-year-old Abdu Ali Al-Wafi, a geologist, asked: "What is the target of this film? Because this film makes clashes between different people." Muslims esteem other prophets equally with Muhammad, Al-Wafi said, citing Jesus and Moses. "All the prophets are the same," he said. He and others wondered why if they respect other traditions they too couldn't fetch respect for their beliefs.
While some avoided the embassy, outraged throngs did try to make their way in that direction. Adjacent to the facade displaying the Hotel Sheraton's name, an overpass was lined with uniformed authorities and weapons trucks, while the opposing overpass was lined with protestors. Below hundreds gathered, nearly all men, clasping signs and chanting pro-Prophet slogans. Nearby, plumes of black smoke rose into the air from burning tires. Some said they were barred from inching any further to the embassy, claiming they had seen armed American soldiers on the roof of the Sheraton.
The landscape represented differing parties and persuasions, some here said — from former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's Almotamar party to youth of the revolution, out of unity for what they consider an offense against the Prophet. In a pink T-shirt, Ali Al-Askari, 25, also donned a green headband wrapping around his forehead, that read, "Only for you O God's Prophet." Al-Askari said he had been at the embassy the day before but "never touched anything." A well-traveled English teacher at a local language institute, Al-Askari remained angry, saying Americans should respect the Prophet.
"We don't want anyone, any person from America to be in Yemen because they never respect our religion," he said. "Because our Prophet is inside our blood, inside Yemen blood," he added, pointing to a vein in his arm.
Al-Askari, who flashed pictures of Che Guevara tucked in with his identity card, explained that he had a question for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Just before he could utter the rest of his thought, the sound of a blast sent the crowd into a panicked scurry.
Security forces shot tear gas multiple times, as white smoke blew by, protesters dashed deeper into far-off alleyways. Some were prepared with onions and face-masks to assuage the gas' impact. But many were caught off-guard, reeling from the stinging in their eyes and throats, and one boy lay on the street for some time as others tried to aid him.
Shots could be heard and a water cannon sprayed along the bypass and toward a mosque. Some protestors hurled stones at authorities, an action that some suggested was the impetus for the tear gas firing.
Swarms of men continued running in disparate directions, as the scene near the Sheraton emptied out by late afternoon. Along a far-off street, Al-Askari somehow emerged from the chaos, his eyes reddened by the gas. Breathless, he said he wanted to round out the question to Clinton about a film he has yet to set his eyes on.
"Yesterday, I see and I watch TV that she said that the film is so bad and she don't like that film and she don't know who do that film," he said. "But we want to know who spent the money for that film. We want answer from Hillary Clinton."