How to Survive America’s Kill List
Bilal Abdul Kareem is an expert in staying alive.
Born Darrell Lamont Phelps, he grew up just north of the Bronx in Mount Vernon, New York. He did what lots of kids in his neighborhood were doing in the late Seventies and Eighties: He spent his time rolling on the floor laughing to comics like Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor.
Later, after college at SUNY Purchase in Westchester, he decided to try stand-up himself. Hecklers were a problem.
In upscale white clubs where he sometimes performed, audiences would clap politely if his jokes missed. Not so much in the Brooklyn clubs he worked. The mostly black audiences there let him have it when he was off.
“Black folks always want to get involved in the act, you know what I’m saying?” he recalls, laughing. “Then you gotta respond with some ‘Yo mama’s so fat’ jokes just to get them to sit down and shut up.”
Over a decade later, after some major life changes – he’d converted to Islam and found himself working as a TV reporter in the Middle East under his new name, Bilal Abdul Kareem – he again drew upon his stand-up experience to stay alive. Only he wasn’t worried about dying on stage this time. This time it was more serious.
In the waning days of the Battle of Aleppo, as Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s forces closed in on the city, Kareem found himself in a room full of desperate Free Syrian Army rebels.