More like this

Kemala and servants before leaving for Mecca, c.1933. Image: Supplied

It begins with a woman – flawed, subtle, complex – at the heart of the desert. She has always heard the call, 7,689 kilometres away, from Kota Agung, Lampung – The Noble City – which didn’t appear in the form of sound or vision, but through miracles.

My ancestors come from Sumatra, an island rich with history, war heroes, and conflicting identities. In my family we share a collective mythology around our great-great-grandmother, Hajjah Kemala. We know the story of her youth, the difficulties she faced and subsequent recovery. We know that eventually, she gathered enough money and resources to travel to Mecca for six months – but here, her story stops.

One of the Five Pillars of Islam requires every Muslim to perform the Hajj – the great pilgrimage to Mecca – at least once in their lifetime if they are able to do so. In the 1930s, a time of war and famine, the call of the desert was granted to men with wealth and power, and those who had the honour of their presence. Women were forbidden to travel alone. The journey from Indonesia to the newly-formed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was perilous and extensive, and pilgrims cloistered for months in preparation.

In this absence of story, her descendants have filled in the gaps, weaving the mythology of the woman, who after decades of struggle, finally arrived in the desert of her dreams.

We have not been able to find anything about the six long months Kemala spent in Mecca – no photographs, documentations, or memories from surviving descendants. What we know is that she left for Mecca, returned to Jakarta, and died several years after. In this absence of story, her descendants have filled in the gaps, weaving, and perhaps, completing the mythology of the woman, who after decades of struggle, finally arrived in the desert of her dreams.


Kemala (left) and her family (date unknown). Image: Supplied

My great-great-grandmother was born Kemala Hamilatussa’diah, but decades later, she became Hajjah, the woman who came to Mecca. Her date of birth is unclear, but we suspect it was 1895. She was fifteen when Raden Saleh, the demang (district head) of Kota Agung, saw her – this woman, who walked in the streets of the city underneath a thin, white parasol while her younger sisters walked behind her, and who had not yet understood the modes of her body, but knew it held some kind of power. He took her to a house away from his first and his second wife, with Dutch imported furniture, and servants and cooks, and lush mango trees in the garden. She bore him five children, four girls and a boy, who spoke Dutch, and who climbed these trees, while their servants waited underneath should they lose their footing. But when the demang died, the first wife who cared for him for decades, and the second wife who served him for another, took everything. She was left with nothing, not the gulden, or the jewels, or anything that was promised to her or her children – only the mango trees.

She raised five children by herself, one of whom would be my great-grandmother. She sold mangoes, at first to neighbours, then to markets, then to merchants from cities outside of Lampung. When the demang’s first and second wife grew resentful of her new wealth, she took a boat and sailed to Jakarta with her children. And then, in October 1933, she answered the call of the desert. Without a husband, she had no more title or keeper, no men who would give her permission to perform the Hajj alone. She brought three male servants to come with her in her pilgrimage, and at the end of their six-month odyssey, she set them free.

‘Women’s desire would not be expected to speak the same language as man’s,’ writes Luce Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One. It is expected to be a quieter, subtler language – existing only in the realm of the man’s presence. This same subtlety permeates our mythology of Hajjah Kemala. We looked at her faded photographs: here, she is seated in a Dutch mansion, young and alive, looking towards the distance; here, she stands next to her family, unsmiling, almost pensive; here, she is surrounded by her husband and children; here, she sits in all white, her gaze examining the camera, her male servants seated at her feet before they left for Mecca. Then, a large gap – there was nothing, no photographs or documentation of her journey to Mecca, not even stories or rumours, until, here, her graveyard with a pavilion where her descendants sit to pray. It was not only that she was remarkable in her fearlessness, it was that she is the furthest back we can go, that she has become a symbol: the first of our women to hear the call, and arrive in the heart of the desert. Somewhere in here is her mythology, tied to everyone she has ever known, cared for, loved – despite herself, instead of herself.

Hajjah Kemala (date unknown). Image: Supplied

Somewhere in here is her mythology, tied to everyone she has ever known, cared for, loved – despite herself, instead of herself.


A woman is bound by land and language, by heritage and beliefs, by tradition and spirituality, and for the longest time, by her keepers. When the identity of a woman intersects with a man, she becomes someone’s other – a daughter, a wife, a mother. My great-great-grandmother is someone who exists in the periphery of the imagination, who may or may not have existed, whose voice is overshadowed by that of her keeper. The woman is the furthest we can go. The rest of them, her father, her mother, her sisters, her husband, are gone. And so, what happens to the woman, when everyone who defines her has disappeared? Who do we belong to, when we have lost the spaces we exist in? Does a woman’s mythology disappear with those around her? Or has she been reborn, now free to choose her own mythology – examining them, reassembling them, redefining them as she wishes? Did she, and so many women like her, find a way to transform her tragedy into power?

The responsibility of the historian or archivist – in this instance, my grandmother and her siblings – is to find the old world, and the thread that connects it to the present. They reconstruct the woman from their own memories: of a grandmother who was loving but firm, wealthy but generous, who watched them climb the mango trees in the garden like their parents did, and who was quickly becoming a mirage in their own minds. They looked through the photographs, pasted together in photo albums, buried underneath birth and death certificates, waiting in the darkness of storerooms.

We created a path from memories, photographs, documents, which spoke of the woman – but there were gaps that could not be explained. How did she take care of five children while maintaining her business? What did her former sister wives do that made her escape to Jakarta? And the biggest question of all: what happened in her six-month odyssey to Mecca? In these spaces, we unconsciously created a longing for how a woman should be: defiant of her times, firm in her beliefs, solitary in her movement. But this is not truth, it’s our imagination of a woman, who again, exists in relation to our own desires. And she is not here to correct us.


In April 1934, Kemala returned to Jakarta – now Hajjah, now free of men. What happened during these six long months? Which ship did she travel on? What was she thinking about as she gazed across the Red Sea? What shade was the sky when she arrived? Was she full of fear, hope, courage, longing? How did the desert, that had been waiting for her for centuries, welcome her?

And then, what comes next, after all this? Here is a ​mythology – flawed, subtle, complex – of the woman who reached the heart of the desert that she has dreamed of – not by power or conflict, but by the miracle of the self.