If Zahab does have second thoughts, Riya Saran will be there to remind her: You can’t set a record if you don’t cut your hair.
“I was trying to do Guinness for a long time, but I needed a good push,” Zahab explained the other day at Riya’s family home in Falls Church, Va.
Riya — organized, methodical — gave her that push. She’s the Col. Tom Parker to Zahab’s Rapunzel Elvis. They make a formidable pair.
The two met last year when Riya, 19, took up squash during a gap year after graduating from Marshall High in Falls Church. Her instructor at McLean Racquet & Health Club was Zahab, 30, a professional player from Karachi, Pakistan.
Riya soon learned that Zahab was distinctive for two reasons: Not only is she an athlete from a part of the world that doesn’t always prize female competitors, but she also has really, really (really) long hair. It doesn’t look it when it’s piled in a bun atop Zahab’s head. But when she lets it down, the shiny black waterfall reaches to the floor.
Zahab was 13, her hair halfway down her back, when her father, Mustafa Kamal Khan, suggested she never cut it. Long hair would make her stand out, he said, and maybe earn her a Guinness World Record.
“I told her, ‘Keep it longer, someday you’ll see,’ ” said Mustafa, who had driven down from Connecticut, where he runs a cigar company.
And what did Zahab think?
“I was kind of annoyed, a little bit,” she said.
Zahab’s grandmother helped care for her hair, mixing up a special oil for it, drying the hair in the sun, brushing it, pulling it and braiding it. (Painful, Zahab said, though her grandmother insisted it would encourage it to grow.)
Said Mustafa: “When she started squash, the dream came true.”
Zahab was competing in Karachi in a match against her younger sister, Neha, when her bun came loose. She stopped to fix it and the media went wild. Suddenly, Zahab wasn’t just a squash player, she was the longest-haired athlete in Pakistan, maybe the world.
Alas, Guinness does not delineate long hair by profession. There is long hair, period — the current record-holder is a woman in China whose tresses are more than 18 feet long — and there are categories involving hair. Zahab, who moved to the United States in 2018, got the boost she needed after meeting Riya.
Last month Riya helped Zahab set a Guinness record for the most hair clips in a person’s hair: 1,100 plastic butterfly clips that Riya attached to Zahab’s locks in a conference room at the Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library. The strands cascaded down her back like chain mail.
And at 10 a.m. Thursday, Zahab will have 61 inches of her hair cut off, earning her a record in a new Guinness category: most hair donated to a charity by an individual. The recipient will be Children With Hair Loss, an organization that provides wigs to kids who need them.
The event is also a way to publicize Zahab’s own charity, the Zahab Neha Foundation, which helps poor children in Karachi afford schooling and sports activities.
“I have seen so many kids who don’t have rackets,” Zahab said. “And if they have rackets, they’re broken. They don’t have shoes.”
Zahab said the nonprofit she founded with her sister supports 60 children.
Zahab is girding for Thursday’s donation, when a stylist from Hair Cuttery, one of the sponsors that Riya wrangled, will transform Zahab’s floor-length hair to shoulder-length hair.
“There are people on Instagram trying to convince me: ‘Don’t cut it,’ ” said Zahab — or @zahabkamalkhan on the photo-sharing site.
“Some have been supportive. Some have definitely been against the idea,” Riya said.
Zahab is curious how losing all that hair will affect how she moves her body. She’s accustomed to a lot of weight on her head. Something that took more than half her life to grow will be gone in an instant.
“It’s something that in just two minutes will happen,” she said.
Attempting this record isn’t like doing the most jumping jacks or swimming the English Channel, categories in which, if you fail, you can regroup and try again.
“After that haircut, it’s over,” Riya said.
But something else will begin for Zahab: trying to decide on a new hairstyle.
Shave and a haircut
I’m taking some time off. I’ll be back in this space on Sept. 6.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.