18 Sep 2006
Ashkhain, Lady Skipwith, who has died aged 64, was the author of three books on Middle Eastern cuisine and the witty co-author of three highly-successful books of Arabic proverbs that are widely read with amusement throughout the Arab-speaking world.
A direct, zesty woman who held strong opinions, she nevertheless wielded great charm and wit, inspiring love and fear in equal measure.
She was born Ashkhain Bedros Atikian in Jaffa on September 13 1941. Growing up in Gaza as a member of a close-knit Armenian family born in Palestine, she considered herself a double-refugee with a heritage of two historical grievances. As a young woman Ashkhain moved to London and trained as a nurse at the Whittington Hospital while living in a bohemian menage at a large house in Blantyre Street, Fulham. It was there that she met the artist John Bardell, whom she married in 1967.
The couple spent most of their three-year marriage travelling the world, taking in the Middle East, India, Mexico and Canada, where Ashkhain took nursing work while her husband painted.
Back in London after her divorce in 1970, Ashkhain worked as a cancer nurse at the Royal Marsden Hospital and returned to live in Blantyre Street where, in 1971, she met Sir Patrick Skipwith, the Old Harrovian scion of an ancient baronetcy. They married the following year.
The Skipwiths moved to Saudi Arabia, driving the several thousand miles from London to Jeddah in a Volkswagen Beetle car. Sir Patrick pursued a career as a geologist and, despite Saudi laws forbidding women to work, Ashkhain took various nursing and secretarial jobs.
She loved knitting, and produced a series of exotic sweaters for members of her family and friends, based on designs by Patricia Roberts, the British designer who raised hand knitting to the realms of high fashion.
Another of her abiding passions was cooking, and Ashkhain – a talented dinner hostess – collected some 20 Armenian recipes which she published herself. This was followed by another privately-published book of Middle Eastern recipes, and finally a third, Saudi Cooking Of Today (1986), which was published commercially.
Ashkhain's cookery books broke fresh ground in that they opened a door to tastes and dishes hitherto largely unknown to Westerners. Their success encouraged Ashkhain to collaborate with her friend Primrose Arnander in producing a short series of humorous Arabic phrase-books. The first, The Son Of A Duck Is A Floater (1985), was followed by Apricots Tomorrow (1992) and finally Unload Your Own Donkey (2003).
Ashkhain returned to Britain in 1986 when her second marriage failed, and resumed her work as a nurse. In the early 1990s she moved to Canada, shuttling between London and Calgary but only settling permanently in Alberta in 1996.
She spent the last few years of her life nursing her mother in Calgary.
In November, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and died on August 23 having refused further treatment, a characteristically courageous decision. She never remarried.