And though she be but little, she is fierce. – Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Walking into Qout Market, you feel something in the air. It’s almost like, magic. It’s the same feeling when you walk into a Pretty Little Things event, a Tiger Tiger pop-up, and an intimate, curated restaurant launch. What’s the unifying factor? Noaf Hussein.
Noaf had a childhood so magical it almost seems unreal. Every summer she and her family would fly to the U.S., visiting museums everywhere they went. She went camping, hiking, fishing and visited Disneyland often, to say the least. They would go on road trips, passing by Maryland to visit her dad’s friend, “an eccentric Uncle Tom.” Tom and his wife, Alice, had a giant backyard, and their neighbor had blueberry trees that he’d let Noaf and her two brothers pick blueberries from. That was the first time she laid her eyes on fireflies. She’d run around, catching them in jars.
That same neighbor worked for the CIA, so Noaf grew up hearing all his crazy stories, and imagining them. “I had a very imaginative childhood,” Noaf said. “Even in adulthood, that little bit of magic still lives inside me.”
She felt delight over the smallest things, and now, these small details are what she brings into her events, hoping to carry this magic from her childhood into adulthood, allowing other people to experience it as well.
Noaf, 31, began her career working at a Public Relations agency. In eight months, she realized the corporate environment wasn’t for her. She quit her job and has been working for herself ever since. Noaf is the creator of Pretty Little Things, one of the orchestrators of Qout Market, and the mastermind behind famed pop-ups like Tiger Tiger and the restaurant launches of Ora, Habra, and Three and Barista, among others.
She assumed she would enter the PR company, start at the bottom and work her way up by working really hard, but the job wasn’t at all what she expected. She was always the first one there, and the last to leave. If the general manager left the office early, everyone else would leave too.
“I didn’t know how to function that way. I was disillusioned,” she said. “The idea I had was very idealistic and it didn’t work.” Noaf likes to follow rules, so she’s still confused as to how she became this person who just up and left her job, and felt no worry about it.
“I felt like I could always land on my feet for some reason and I thought worse case scenario, I’ll just ride this wave until my luck runs out and then get an actual job,” she said. “But it’s been eight years and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a traditional job.”
She calls it structured free fall. She has enough self-discipline that she doesn’t need to be watched in order to work, and over time she’s figured out what she needs to be productive, and it’s not being in an office.
When she left the agency she worked as a freelance copywriter for projects, a brand director, and an art director, basically throwing herself into whatever she could find so she could figure out what she loved the most.
This drive to succeed came from within, it was never to prove something to anyone else and gain recognition. External rewards weren’t something she sought out, and she was taught this by her parents.
Academic performance throughout Noaf’s childhood mattered, but they were not confined in a box. “It wasn’t if you are an engineer or you are in science, you matter,” she said. “It was just learning life skills; do whatever you want, but be the best at it.”
Noaf was also taught the love of reading; she and her brothers would be taken to bookstores and given a limit of no more than three books. They’d always want more than three, and their mom would always buy them the extra books anyway.
Her favorite books all had a shared theme; they all revolve around a female heroine with odds stacked against her, but goes on a grand adventure and saves the day. Noaf sees herself in these female protagonists; she is that small girl trying to figure things out but pulls through against all odds.
Noaf’s career hasn’t come without challenges, but she knew she was doing well when people tried to give her bad advice to throw her off her path. Early on in her career, after freelancing for companies, they would often offer her a job. She knew her value but they would always lowball her and try to pressure her into taking the job in a way, which Noaf described as typical of our society; sexist and patriarchal.
One man, who is regarded as a mentor; a public figure that people look up to, told her, “I’m like your brother, and I wouldn’t recommend someone of your age to freelance.” But this little voice inside her knew better, and she rejected the job offer. She found out later that this same man had used her as an example in his staff meeting, except he changed one crucial detail; her gender. For a reason beyond Noaf’s comprehension, it seemed difficult for him to use a woman as a model to motivate his staff to hit their targets.
“I knew when I threatened a grown man that I was on the right path,” she said. “It was like, ‘How dare you? You are so much younger than me. I tried to get you to work for me, who do you think you are? Why are you this confident? So I’m going to try and break you.’” If she had any doubts about her career choice, that moment erased them for her. If anything, it was a learning moment.
“The early part of my career taught me everything I don’t want be, as a human being, and at work. All these people that I came across, it solidified the way I roll,” she said. “I believe in karma, and I feel like it’s why good fortune keeps coming my way because I’m grateful and I’m kind to people.”
This good karma found its way back to her just recently when she was finally given permission to have Qout Market at Al-Shaheed Park only two weeks before it was set to start. Noaf had been trying for two years and she was constantly being made to jump over hurdles.
“I had given up on it because for me, I don’t see the market anywhere else; it belonged in the park. If I wasn’t going to be allowed into the park I wasn’t going to do it this year,” she said. “Nothing will do well before its time. Hard work and luck need to intersect and then timing is everything.”
Images taken by Bandele Zuberi.