Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 ErN 86, entry Feb 2003

malfi, Afghanistan & Abu Tabela
The town square of San Lazzaro is named for General
Avitabile, known in Afghan lore as Abu  Tabela.

I see that there is a bed and breakfast organization near the Amalfi coast. That is not surprising, nor is the fact they advertise quaint little hikes into the very beautiful surrounding countryside, some of them quite close to the Fjord of Furore. One such hike that caught my eye was billed as "Along the trail of Abu Tabela". The blurb says, "…our goal is the small town square of San Lazzaro." It praises the "blessed peace and quiet" of the area. 

As it turns out, Abu Tabela was anything but quaint and his life has very little to do with peace and quite, either, except the sombre peace and quiet brought on by death. He is the subject of a recent book by Stefano Malatesta entitled Abu Tabela, The Neapolitan Who Tamed the Afghans. If you are attracted by stories of Attila the Hun and Vlad the Impaler, you will like Abu Tamela, born Paolo Crescenzo Martino Avitabile in 1791 in the mountains above Amalfi in the then Bourbon Kingdom of Naples. How "Avitabile" turned into "Abu Tabela" and why that latter name is still used by mothers in Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan) almost two centuries after the fact to control unruly children ("If you don't behave, I'm going to call Abu Tabela")—that is a strange story. 

At the age of 16, Avitabile enlisted in the Bourbon army. He soon passed into the new Neapolitan army of Gioacchino Murat, who had been made King of Naples by his brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, after the royal family fled to Sicily. When Napoleon's time had come and gone, Avitabile returned to service with the restored Bourbon military. 

map showing PeshawarIn the early 1820s, however, he set out for parts east as a soldier of fortune. He sold his services to the Shah of Persia and was apparently successful in forcing the Kurdish population to pay their taxes. Then in the late 1820s, when the great Sikh warrior Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) captured Peshawar, Avitabile went to work up there, right near the infamous Khyber Pass (map, left), that beautiful vantage point and dead-end street for many an invader of the Indian sub-continent. One of the stories they tell about Singh is that despite his many conquests, he did not allow wanton destruction of life or property, and that throughout his life he never passed a sentence of death. I am unable to reconcile that benign image with his employing a cut-throat such as Avitabile (local pronunciation changed that to "Abu Tabela") as the governor of the city of Peshawar. Avitabile quickly earned the reputation of being a bloodthirsty and ruthless enforcer of Sikh authority. Every morning, they say, Avitabile would have a few Muslims thrown to their deaths from a minaret just as a warning to the locals. He meted out absolutely gruesome "justice" as governor of Peshawar, something that no doubt helped to drive the population away from the city; the population of Peshawar was reduced by half in the years of Sikh rule. 

Avitabile got rich in Peshawar and, unlike many European soldiers-of-fortune in Asia, he had saved his money. He returned to Italy in the early 1840s. On the way back, he stopped for a while in England, where he was received by none other than Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). (Between 1845 and 1849, the British would fight two so-called "Sikh Wars," campaigns that led to the conquest and annexation of the Punjab into British India. Perhaps the Duke was eager for details from one who had "tamed" the Afghans. (Hmmm. Sound familiar?) 

Abu Tabela then went home to the hills of Amalfi, where he bought himself a nice place to live and married a woman much younger than himself. She and her lover —one of the servants— poisoned Avitabile in 1850. It probably happened in one of those quaint little Bed & Breakfast places, too. 

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