Airplane House Keeps Marriage Grounded, if Not Wife

Said Jammal's labor of love for his wife began in 2002 but has not curbed her travel.
Said Jammal's labor of love for his wife began in 2002 but has not curbed her travel. (By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

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By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 18, 2006

ABUJA, Nigeria -- Abuja's airplane house, as it has come to be known by its inhabitants and amazed passersby, has emerged haphazardly over the years as a rare triumph of architectural whimsy in this sleek, modernistic West African capital.

Looking like a jetliner settled atop the two-story concrete home of Said and Liza Jammal, it was born not of an urban planner's cold logic but of something more elemental: a man's love for his wife, and a selfish desire that she spend more time at home.

In a country that has experienced four major air disasters in little more than a year, including a fatal crash last month near Abuja's airport, the effect at first glance can be startling, even frightening. But to those who have watched its gradual emergence -- fuselage, nose, tail, engines -- the plane has become a pleasant symbol of aesthetic mirth in a city dominated by hulking, '70s-style hotels and an ever-growing supply of bland concrete-and-glass office towers.

"It's beautiful," said Ponsak Luka Kudor, 20, a student waiting at a bus stop nearby. "This is the only star we have in Abuja."

The city of 2.5 million residents was founded in 1976 to become the new, orderly capital of a hectic nation that often seems on the verge of breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines.

Abuja became the official capital in 1991, taking over for the rambunctious southwestern port city of Lagos, and has emerged, for Nigerians, as everyone's city and no one's. On Friday afternoons, the wide, flawlessly paved streets empty as politicians and civil servants speed home, which means almost anywhere else.

The airplane house grew from a long-neglected marital promise between the Jammals, members of Nigeria's prosperous Lebanese immigrant community that long has run hotels, restaurants and other businesses here.

When the Jammals married in 1980, Said, now 48, taciturn and mustachioed, with a deep cleft in his chin, was a civil engineer with his own construction company. And Liza, now 42, chatty and dark-haired, was a devoted traveler.

Liza asked her new husband to someday build a house for her in the shape of an airplane as a symbol of her hobby. In the flush of young love, he agreed.

"That was my wife's dream," Said Jammal said, smiling sheepishly as he puffed a cigarette at the end of a dark plastic holder. "You know, she likes to travel a lot, fly a lot."

The vow went unfulfilled for the first two decades of their marriage, as the demands of seven children and a fast-growing business consumed the Jammals. But in 1999, they spotted a piece of land on a rise alongside the main highway heading north out of Abuja.

The neighborhood was nice, with the Nigerian presidential villa, Aso Rock, next door, but what clinched the deal was the view. For more than a mile, pedestrians and motorists approaching from the south would be able to see the house and whatever the Jammals put on top of it.


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