If It’s Thursday in the Middle East, It’s Time for a Wedding

The recent Jordanian royal nuptials happened on a weekday that is rich with cultural significance unfamiliar to many who tuned in

If It’s Thursday in the Middle East, It’s Time for a Wedding
The Jordanian crown prince and his new bride greet the crowds after their wedding ceremony on June 1. (Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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Last week’s royal wedding in Jordan was a spectacle that held more meaning and tradition than met the eye.

Millions across the globe tuned in to catch the first glimpses of the future king and queen. It was the second wedding this year for the Hashemite household — which has ruled Jordan since 1921 — and the biggest celebration the country has seen yet.

The first wedding was that of 26-year-old Princess Iman to Jameel Alexander Thermiotis, a Venezuelan Muslim convert and managing partner at a venture capital firm in New York City. Her wedding was anything but modest, though still not comparable in size to her older brother’s wedding, in which the Jordanian heir, Crown Prince Hussein, married Rajwa Alseif, a 29-year-old Saudi architect with links to her own country’s monarchic dynasty. (That the future queen of Jordan is Saudi is itself significant, considering recent tensions between the two kingdoms, but that’s a different story.)

The day began with the bride making her way through Amman’s streets in a 1968 Rolls-Royce Phantom V to a decked-out Zahran Palace, where she met her groom, who was dressed head to toe in military uniform, eagerly awaiting her arrival.

Royals from around the world made their way to the palace to greet the newlyweds. From the U.K., Prince William and Princess Kate made an appearance, with Kate wearing a blush gown by Elie Saab, the same Lebanese designer who created Princess Rajwa’s wedding dress. From Europe, royals from Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands joined, and from the Gulf, the crown princes of Abu Dhabi, Oman and Kuwait were seen, as well as the son of Bahrain’s crown prince and the mother of the Qatari emir.

Each one was greeted by King Abdullah and Queen Rania, who was dressed in Dior, just as on her own wedding day, almost exactly three decades ago to the day. Similarities between the parents’ wedding day and their son’s were unmissable. They both married on a similarly sunny day in June, at the same palace, also on a Thursday. Beyond the palace, the country partied and celebrated till the early hours the next day.

It was a night of glitz and glamor, a night full of hope for the future of the country, stability in the monarchy and possibilities to come. The wedding was one of the biggest celebrations the region had seen in decades — and, internationally, perhaps second only to that other royal wedding.

Above all, it was a night to celebrate love and everything that folklore has told us to expect of a Thursday night, because across the Arab world, Thursday has become the day of weddings.

When exactly Thursday became associated with marriages, engagements and all things romance remains a mystery, but because of this association, the phrase “laylat al-khamees” (Arabic for Thursday night) has become a folklore code for a wedding night and a date for distant lovers to get together, whether in a fairy-tale wedding like the Jordanian heirs’ or a traditional wedding in rural Egypt. The date was almost always a Thursday, although this has become less consistent in recent years for various reasons.

But why does Thursday persist as the special day, especially at a time when everything that is needed for a wedding is difficult to source and organize? Vendors raise their prices. Venues are booked out months and sometimes even years in advance. Hair stylists aren’t just double-booked but quadruple-booked and may not show up in time to help a bride get ready. And the roads are so busy with celebrations that traffic is at a standstill. Despite this, the love of Thursdays remains surprisingly strong. Perhaps, as the night before Friday, traditionally a blessed day in Islam, it’s still widely perceived as the beginning of the weekend in the region. Whatever the reason, the day continues to hold a special place in the hearts of millions, and the streets come to life.

From as early as the 1930s, people in the region had something to celebrate on a Thursday night. Thursday was the day when hundreds would wait for hours to watch one of the greatest singers of all time, Umm Kulthum, perform on stage in Egypt. It was the first Thursday of every month when she would bestow on us a new lyrical marvel. For the next 40 years, people would tune in to the then-expensive radio to listen to her unmatched voice and hourlong songs that continue to move us even today. Another Egyptian legend, Abdel Halim Hafez, who rose to fame in the ’50s, also favored Thursdays for his concerts. Once, after an audience waited for hours one Thursday night for the start of one of his events and was agitated at having yet to hear their favorite classical songs, Hafez asked his audience: “Are you in a hurry? It’s 12:30 [a.m.]. And today is Thursday,” he chuckled. “And tomorrow there’s no work. In a hurry, I see.” Not long after, and with the spread of Egyptian cinema and television, the phrase “laylat al-khamees” became popular.

Actors’ suggestive references to laylat al-khamees were common, and for audiences it foreshadowed a romantic scene, though this was never shown on screen. Movies including “Red Agenda” and “Terrorism and Kebab” helped coin the term “Thursday night, devil’s night” and even associated the day with women wearing shades of red, bringing us the other phrase of “layla hamra” (red night), which became another, more sexually suggestive synonym for “laylat al-khamees.”

During Hollywood’s golden age, American motion pictures came up with their own set of rules to reflect societal values, unofficially called the Hays Code, to block out profanity and suggestive nudity and to tame sexual content and any hint of LGBTQ influence. One of these rules was to not show a kiss lasting longer than three seconds. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock got around this by creating several pauses in a kiss. Egyptian cinema had its own similar rulebook. Outside of Hollywood, directors also became skilled at pushing boundaries, making use of euphemisms and leaving out certain details for the audience to interpret the story on their own.

In one of the most famous Egyptian theatrical comedy plays, “El-Eyal Kebret” (“No Longer Kids”), directed by Samir El-Asfory in 1979, the script leans heavily on this, as Zenab’s adult children try to encourage their mother to rekindle her relationship with their father, who had been cheating on her without her knowing.

In one scene, her son Sultan asks: “Mom, I want to ask you a question. How long has it been since you’ve had an affectionate sitting with dad?”

Zenab, who has been dusting furniture, replies, “What does affectionate mean?”

“I mean romantic,” he says.

“What does romantic mean?” she asks.

“What do I tell her?” he says, looking at the live audience. “I mean a ‘Thursday.’”

Zenab leaps in shock as the crowd roars in laughter.

“How come you understood that one?!” he says.

But the phrase has found new life beyond the traditions of the 20th century and Egyptian cinema. In recent years, the preeminent Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu wrote a song called “Thursday Night,” romanticizing the day, with some of his lyrics referencing the night of a wedding. The phrase has even become a hashtag on social media and is used so commonly that people have wondered if it carried historical or religious significance, or if it is simply coincidence that it became the favored day. I’d say it is a bit of all of these. By luck, it was a Thursday when nature decided to give us the artistic wonders of Leonardo da Vinci with his birth, a Thursday when the U.S. declared its independence, a Thursday when the eagle became America’s national animal. (And it was no accident that we picked Thursday to run this piece.)

Little is known of the love story that brought Hussein and Rajwa together. We know they met through a mutual school friend. In an off-the-cuff comment to a question on how the two became acquainted, a lovestruck Hussein told an audience: “I consider myself lucky because [it’s] not every day one meets someone like Rajwa.”

By the end of the night, King Abdullah was clearly exhausted from the celebrations, stretching as he waited to greet even more guests who flew thousands of miles to be with the royals. The king’s fatigue seemed to be a mix of relief and joy from seeing through a hectic day and a happy couple newly married, all in a Thursday night’s work.

Even with many countries in the region in recent years moving their weekends from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday or Saturday and Sunday to help businesses align with those in the West, a love for Thursday endures. Intentionally or not, the Jordanian lovebirds reminded us just how special a Thursday is.

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