‘DOUBT thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love.’ — Hamlet from William Shakespeare.
Love, as the old adage goes, makes the world go round. Its everlasting beauty has been immortalised in songs and turned into 1,001 heart-warming tales, while its tragic side saw kingdoms going to war, spelling doom and gloom to many a love story.
Things people do for love have transcended time and space, taking the form of grand palaces, majestic monuments and awe-inspiring landmarks.
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the ivory-white marble mausoleum, Taj Mahal, in Agra, India, in the 17th century to show his love for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, following her death.
Closer to home, a similar tale of unbridled love can be found in Kellie’s Castle in Batu Gajah, Perak, built in 1909 by Scotsman William Kellie Smith for his family.
Now, Malaysians can add another monument of love to the list.
In Jempol, Negri Sembilan, Astana Az-Zahrah is a testament to love in the 21st century that is beautifully melded with age-old traditions.
Built by 78-year-old Yusof Abdullah, an Australian citizen, the mansion symbolises his love for his wife, Zaharah Kidam, 79, from Kampung Bukit Laka in Bahau.
Their love story, spanning 53 years across continents and cultural barriers, is immortalised in ways that are nothing short of magnificent.
The accommodation complex of Astana Az-Zahrah, located next to Sungai Muar, is raised above its surrounding area on a bullhorn-shaped mound.
The main hall lies at the head of the mound with five chalets, a toilet block for campers and an administration centre arrayed on either side of the hall forming the two horns.
At the tips of the bullhorn are two ponds, with the larger one representing a mother and the smaller one a baby to depict a mother’s love.
All the buildings have the distinctive Minangkabau-styled bullhorn roof, an architectural design depicting Zaharah’s cultural heritage.
Zaharah, fondly known as Mak Su, was born in 1940 and studied at the then University of Macquarie in Sydney, Australia.
She met Yusof in the well-known harbour city in 1964 and the couple got married two years later in London.
In an interview with the New Sunday Times, Yusof said Zaharah’s love for her homeland grew stronger by the day after becoming an Australian citizen.
“Being thousands of miles away from her hometown has not changed her a bit.
“Every now and then, stories from her childhood and her hometown fill our conversations, leaving a warm and soothing feelings for both of us.
“My wife still speaks Bahasa Melayu fluently and keeps her traditions alive in many ways, through food and clothing, for example.
“I have no problem practising Malay customs, including eating Malay food and wearing the traditional costume.”
The idea to incorporate the Minangkabau identity into their home, he said, had been his wife’s dream.
“I’m happy to be able to realise my wife’s wish. Being part of that dream means a lot to me,” said Yusof as he looked fondly at Zaharah, seated next to him during the interview.
Despite being married for more than five decades, the couple brimmed with love as if they were newlyweds.
And how deep is Yusof’s love? In case you’re wondering, the mansion cost RM4.5 million.
“I am willing to do anything for her, and this includes spending RM4.5 million to build the house.
“But as Jennifer Lopez sang in her hit song, Love Don’t Cost a Thing, my love for her doesn’t have any price tag.
“Some people may think that I am crazy for spending that much to fulfil my wife’s dream, but I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
What’s important, Yusof said, was for them to be blessed with good health.
“We have been living together for 53 years.
“My wish is to be blessed with good health so that I can spend more time with her,” said the former geologist.
Located in Kampung Sri Rompin, about 2km from Rompin, Astana Az-Zahrah sits on 1.6ha that was once owned by Zaharah’s late father.
“It was a forest area and was left idle for a long time.
“We decided to develop it in stages in the past three years.
“The architectural design was inspired by my wife, who wanted to inject it with Minangkabau elements like the gadang home in Bukit Tinggi, Sumatra.”
Yusof said the main building, known as gadang and other accommodation blocks, were built by a local contractor, who is his wife’s nephew.
“Only the roof part, called mahkota gonjong, is imported from Sumatra.
“It is a feature that is a must in any gadang house.”
Yusof said the details of every corner of Astana Az-Zahrah had been carefully designed to uphold traditional Minangkabau elements.
Zaharah is the granddaughter of the ninth Luak Jempol chief, Abdul Wahab Ibrahim, making her inclination towards the Minangkabau identity, which is closely associated with Negri Sembilan’s Adat Perpatih, palpable.
A building that houses the main hall is named after the former luak chief, as a tribute to Zaharah’s grandfather.
While Zaharah was moved by her husband’s dedication to the completion of the Minangkabau-styled home, she said, the building was a reminder of her childhood.
“Astana Az-Zahrah is not only about my husband’s love for me, it also symbolises my love for my six siblings and relatives, many of whom I grew up with when I lived in my hometown.
“Every room at Astana Az-Zahrah is named after them.
“Although we rarely meet after I migrated, our memories and love are immortalised here.”
Zaharah, who works as a psychologist and runs her own clinic in Sydney, is a mother to Zarina Dara, 51, and Bruce Kamal, 48.
After receiving positive feedback from friends who had stay-ed at Astana Az-Zahrah, the couple decided to open the mansion’s doors to the public for them to enjoy the cultural experience.
“Getting good feedback prompted us to open it to people who may want to experience staying in a Minangkabau resort-like home.”
Although Zaharah has lived abroad for decades, her strong sense of belonging to her roots was undeniable as she expressed her wish to be buried at Astana Az-Zahrah when she died.
“I want to be buried here even if I die abroad.
“I have told my husband to bring my body back to the land I was born.”
As for those who want to experience staying in Astana Az-Zahrah, there are different types of rooms to choose from, said manager Puteri Nadya Azya Mohd Asmadi.
“There are 15 rooms to choose from, including a family chalet and two executive suites.
“We are working with the villagers to organise outdoor activities, such as kayaking in Sungai Muar and archery, as well as providing venues for weddings.
“We welcome people who want to come and take pictures,” she said.