Three thousand miles from his native Lyon, Frenchman Claude Abry is living his dream in the Middle East, where he once cooked for royalty and has now traded his chef’s toque for helmets and Harley-Davidsons.
“After my family, I have two loves in life: cooking and riding motorcycles,” Abry, 43, told AFP at his Harley dealership outside the Jordanian capital, Amman - a challenging project in a country where bikes were banned for more than two decades for reasons of “public safety.”
“Cooking and riding motorcycles give me and my family freedom. I had nothing and I worked very hard to become a chef - and one of the best,” he said.
In Lyon, France’s gastronomic capital, Abry worked under iconic chef Paul Bocuse before moving to Jordan and cooking for King Abdullah II-- who, like his late father, King Hussein, is a motorcycle enthusiast and Harley owner.
“I was the youngest pastry chef with Bocuse,” Abry said, but declined to speak of his time at Jordan’s royal palace for confidentiality reasons.
Abry moved to Jordan in 2000, after having also lived in Beirut and Kuwait.
Although he says he misses his first calling, his love for bikes never waned, and he decided in 2010 to become a dealer for legendary American brand Harley.
“I’m a biker, after all. I don’t want to wear a tuxedo,” said Abry, an affable man sporting a beard, tattoos and an earring.
“The passion for motorcycling runs in the family. My father taught me to ride when I was young. He said, ‘When you have kids, you must teach them too.’”
His three children, Lucie, 21, Jad, 18, and Nour, 11, all learnt to ride when they were around six.
Lucie and her mother Martine, who is also from Lyon, work in the family business.
“My wife loves motorcycling too. Her father and grandfather have been Harley riders since 1932,” Abry said.
He might appear unconventional in a conservative society, but over the years he has immersed himself in local traditions and culture.
“I love Jordan. We raised our children here. It’s our second home. When we first saw Jordan we said to ourselves, ‘We have to build something here,’” he said.
"We said the motorcycle business would be good for Jordan -- the roads and climate are good."
For the past three years, Abry has been on a mission to share his passion with Jordanians. He says the toughest challenge is to change the way people view bikers and motorcycles.
“In Jordan, bikes are linked to old movies, gangs and things like that. But motorcycles are not just a means of transport. It is love,” he said.
‘Changing how people think’
His clients tend to agree.
“For people here, Harley-Davidson is a new thing, a new culture. And people tend to resist new things and change,” said 35-year-old Omar, who rides a 2000 Harley Fatboy.
“But I think Abry has made a difference and started to change how people think. He is spreading the Harley culture.”
Abry says he feels Jordanian, although he also misses France.
“Some Americans came the other day and were surprised to see a Frenchman in Jordan dealing in Harleys. I told them I consider myself part of this country. I speak good Arabic and fast during the holy month of Ramadan,” he said.
“Jordan makes me happy, and I feel I have lived all my life here. But at the same time, I miss France. I visit it every year.”
In cash-strapped Jordan, many people look on Harley-Davidsons as a luxury.
“Not true,” Abry said. “Many Harley owners say their bikes cost much less than cars.”
His dealership employs six Jordanians, selling 30 models costing between 8,500 dinars and 30,000 dinars (9,300 to 33,000 euros, $12,000 to $42,000).
Abry also set up the “Kingdom of Jordan Chapter” of Harley aficionados, which now has 220 members, including 24 women.
The chapter organizes a weekly bike trip and also tours abroad three times a year.
“Last year, 18 bikers from Jordan went to Lyon, Milan, Venice, Slovenia, and Austria and back,” Abry said.
To celebrate their wedding anniversary last year, he and Martine rode across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
“We went to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Haifa, Jaffa and Nazareth. It was great,” he said.
Now he is looking at ways to expand the business to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“There are two or three Harley-Davidsons in Kurdistan, no more. Roads there are very nice. So if there’s a chance for me there, I think I’ll go for it. Why not?
“Most problems in this job are about changing attitudes. It’s not easy.”