Two unusual and intermittently powerful novellas from acclaimed Egyptian writer Qasim (1935-90), once a notorious member of his country's ""sixties generation."" Qasim was imprisoned and then exiled by the Nasser regime for left-wing political activism. His writing accordingly grew less openly confrontational, and his later works, including these, focus on characters whose lives are defined less by politics than by the principles and imperatives of Islam. In ""Al-Mahdi"" (1977), a village riddled by the feuding of two prominent families becomes the setting for the forced conversion to Islam of a terrified Coptic (Christian) umbrella maker and his impoverished family. Other forms of seduction and coercion are explored intriguingly (if inconclusively) in two secondary stories: those of the lustful mayor's thwarted pursuit of his lissome housemaid, and of a gentle young man's sexual surrender to a zealous Muslim preacher. The book surveys an impressively wide social terrain with commendable economy, and its grasp of sectarian dynamics infuses the narrative with energy as it moves toward a surprising dramatic conclusion. ""Good News from the Afterlife"" (1981) offers parallel descriptions of a scholarly and dutiful young man's devotion to his dying grandfather, and the grandfather's death, burial, and dreamlike entry into ""the world of the absolute."" The grandfather in death is granted an unobstructed vision of his past life. In fact, the tale becomes mired in doctrinal minutiae, particularly in such sequences as the deceased's submissive conversation with two rather pedantic Angels of Death. Not that there aren't marvelous moments--such as Qasim's ingenious presentation of the sensations of entombment and decay, and this image of the grandson's percipient devotion: ""Perhaps he sensed his grandfather at night, when he was sleeping, between the love of his mother and father."" Maybe a bit remote from Western readers--but there's more than Mahfouz in modern Egyptian fiction, and it's good to have Qasim's work among us.